Losses of War

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The current trade war with China is so ill-conceived and damaging to the US that one hardly knows where to start.

As one point of departure, it’s worth pointing out that the rhetoric around the trade war sounds like the kind of propaganda campaign used to pump up public support for a real war.  It’s all about “winning” and vilification of the Chinese, as if we’re going to knock them down, so that they’ll never threaten our dominance again.

Given that rhetoric it’s worth pointing out a few basic facts:

– China has been overall good for the American economy.   Much of Chinese manufacture is done for American supply chains.  Low prices and high quality of Chinese exports have helped American companies to sell value-add products worldwide, and has also benefited American consumers.  American businesses, with few exceptions, are not pushing for the tariffs.

– There is of course no question about the decline in good, well-paying jobs for people without specific skills.  The Chinese have contributed to that by making good, cheap stuff, in part through undervaluing their currency.   They perfected outsourcing from spec to such a degree that they have made themselves suppliers of choice, leading to declines in manufacturing jobs in the US. While all of that is true, it is also true that they are scapegoats as much as perpetrators for the consequences.   The Chinese are not the source of growing inequality in the US—we did it to ourselves.  And that, as much as the Chinese, caused the pain frequently blamed on globalization.

– The rhetoric around the trade war is remarkably vague over exactly who or what is being defended.  When the subject is the deficit, that makes it sound like the Chinese are stealing from our economy.  But businesses are not tariff supporters, and the deficit is just plain not measuring the right things.  The iPhone is a good example.  It is a fantastically profitable product for Apple—sold at 300% markup over the imported hardware–but it counts as a big loss for the deficit, because the profits are declared in Ireland and Luxemburg for tax purposes.

So maybe we’re doing it for employment.  But the same people who are pushing this are fighting unions, so it pays to look closer.  There’s no guarantee that the tariff-protection will be positive for jobs, particularly good jobs.  Tariffs are a tax, and a very expensive and unsure way to protect a few jobs while putting many more at risk.  To emphasize this point, it should be noted that the new tariffs on China are much like the previous steel tariffs in that they are assessed on basic commodities rather than finished goods—which means that they put all businesses that make the finished goods at risk.   This is obvious in the case of steel, but many of the new tariffs affect hardware which American companies use as platforms for their software—as in the iPhone example.  So the result is much the same as for steel.

– Finally the specific evils attributed to the Chinese—theft of intellectual property, currency manipulation, unfair competition in China and elsewhere—are resolvable issues, as we will discuss shortly.  The trade wars guarantee that those resolvable issues will now be sacrificed to the raw emotions of war.

 

To understand where we stand with China, it helps to think a little bit about recent history.  Over the past twenty years the Chinese economy has come from nowhere to now surpass the US in total volume.  (However, the Chinese population is so large that per capita income is still well-below Mexico.)

The result is that China has transitioned from a country with no capacity to absorb imports and an economy 100% based on export-driven growth—to a country with a middle-class market comparable to the US.  One indication of the transition is the sudden appearance of Chinese tourists everywhere in the West.

That change has many consequences.  For growth, it means that the Chinese are acutely dependent on prosperity in the West for continuing growth of such a huge economy.  For intellectual property, it means that the Chinese have as much to defend as we do.  For imports, it means that the Chinese middle-class has as much interest in western goods as it does in western travel.  And the Chinese are now supporting their currency rather than undervaluing it.

All of that means that—though negotiation with China will certainly not be easy—there is a common interest recognized by all parties.  This is already happening in particular domains, such as financial services.  The world is ready for a historic step—international trade agreements opening China as a major economy and preparing for an era of worldwide growth to the benefit of all parties.  That’s what we are torpedoing with the trade wars, undermining the necessary trust between participants.

Regardless of what we think we’re negotiating, the trade wars mean we’re giving up on access to the biggest economy in the world, growing at 6%, in favor of protected industries at home.  Trade wars are not like real wars in one important respect—we have limited control of the results from the agreement we reach.  People will still have to buy the stuff, and industries have many ways of avoiding a result that no one wants.   An agreement reached (as the Chinese have said) with a knife at the throat is unlikely to bear fruit.  “Winning” in Trump’s sense has little to do with this situation.  And the “it’s no fun winning unless everyone else loses” attitude is a proven recipe for disaster—for us.

If we look toward the future, we are not going to make China go away as a world power—and it’s not to our advantage to do so.  And it’s certainly delusional to think they are just a bunch of cheats whose only talent is in stealing from us.  If we want to be successful, we need to build upon our strengths.  China is a legitimate challenger technologically, and we will fall behind if we don’t recognize what those strengths actually are.  There was one such list of strengths in the NYTimes today;  here we’ve also given a more technology-oriented list.  Many of those items are at-risk in the current anti-science and xenophobic environment.

We should recognize that if we play our cards right, the value of our openness and democratic structures cannot be overestimated, compared with China’s authoritarian regime.   (One can even argue that China’s enormous growth was largely in spite of, rather than because of, its central authority, and that Xi is tightening the screws.)  I’m old enough to remember when we worried about Japan overtaking us, through their disciplined, top-down economy.  There was even a moment where they too had a central technology plan that was going to leave us far behind.   That never happened, and the dynamism of what we represent continued to reinvent itself in the many decades that followed.

And the whole world got richer.  That should be our future also.

A Logical Trap

This note is occasioned by Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal on corporate governance—to add labor representation on corporate boards and expand the scope of corporate responsibility.  Regardless of what happens to her bill, she has done an important service by calling attention to a fundamental problem.

In recent decades American business has been taken over by the so-called Milton Friedman view of corporations.   That view has a simple prescription for how companies should operate: the world is best-served when businesses focus exclusively on business.  I.e. the role of a corporation should be to generate the maximum possible return to its investors.  Any other concerns (the workforce, community responsibility, etc.) are a perversion of the engine that makes capitalism great.

There are lots of reasons why that is suspect.  Clearly in this world labor has little to say, and in fact even a business’ own interests are not necessarily well-served—investors can walk away if the business gets pillaged for their benefit.  The percentage of business profits returned to investors has gone up dramatically with this philosophy, to the disadvantage of both labor and capital investment in the companies themselves.

The point we want to emphasize here is how damaging the Milton Friedman view is in the environment of today.   We have just passed a massive tax cut that has taken so much out of the federal budget that there is (particularly with the deficits) essentially nothing left for the other problems of the society.  As justification we’re told that private enterprise is the engine that makes everything great.

That is of course a logical trap.   Businesses in this world have no responsibility for the well-being of the country—and the government doesn’t either, because the private sector is always the answer!

As a consequence we’re not investing in our people, we don’t have to think about their welfare, and we’re not preparing for the future, because there is no one on the hook to do it.  Even Adam Smith had no illusions about the private sector’s ability to police itself or prepare the population for personal and national success.

Everyone should recognize the true symbolism of the following chart:

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The one significant result of the tax cuts is the huge surge in stock buybacks, essentially returning taxpayer money to corporate investors.  We set a record in Q1, and then almost doubled it in Q2!

Capital investment, by contrast, was relatively flat—little touched by all that money:

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In other words the tax cuts have siphoned off the resources of the country, so that there is nothing left for issues like education, infrastructure, the opioid crisis, climate change—and has delivered that money to corporations who have in turn just passed it through to their wealthy investors via buybacks.

So we’ve become like one big predatory private equity investment, being sucked dry for the benefit of the happy few who are running the show.

Tesla as Example

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However distasteful Elon Musk seems to be, the nuttiness of Tesla’s treatment nonetheless deserves comment.

Tesla was the first (as far as I know) to figure out that current battery technology is practical to power a car.  They have also been the best thus far at figuring out how such a car can be made uniquely attractive.

This is an intensely competitive business, and they have been trying to maintain first-mover advantages in features, battery technology, and the manufacturing process.  That is a very tall order, and it involves enough risk-taking that there is no surprise that it is tough to keep commitments.  Until they reach some sort of stable state vis-à-vis their auto competitors, Tesla has to be regarded as still in a kind of startup phase.  That applies both to risks and rewards.  No one expected iPhone penetration to grow as fast as it did (I can still remember articles talking about mobile phones as a mature, saturated market), and the same kind of thing could happen with electric cars.

Unless you’re a deliberate non-believer in climate change (and these days you have to try hard), the role of electric cars can hardly be overestimated.    Transportation accounts for 28% of carbon dioxide production, and there is no one proposing to put carbon dioxide scrubbers in every car.  Tesla is trying to become the Apple of transportation, with perhaps an even bigger impact on the US economy.

How are we helping Tesla in that undertaking?  Well, we haven’t cut out the electric vehicle subsidy entirely (as the House Republicans proposed to do), but there’s no evidence we’re trying very hard either. The administration is just not interested in anything that raises even the suspicion of climate change.  A carbon tax for example.  We are minimizing Tesla’s value in its home market, while the rest of the world catches up.

As for the business community, everyone seems eager to predict the Tesla’s demise.  Certainly the traditional auto companies would like that, and Musk’s antics make it exciting for the press to think about a deserved fall of arrogance.

However as an indication of what that might mean, people should recognize that all of the core technology in the Chevy Bolt comes from South Korea.  And that story can hold for the rest of the multi-trillion-dollar investment that will be needed to combat climate change.

Thinking Back to the 2008 Crash

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There have been many articles recently reviewing what happened in 2008 and how things have evolved since then.  It’s a good thing we’re thinking about it, but there seems to be a tinge of inevitability to our memories, as if it was all a fact of nature and we need to understand the science of how things turned out as they did.

That’s wrong.  Blithe confidence in deregulation caused the crash.  The Koch-controlled Republican Party chose—with unconscionable cruelty—to prolong the pain of the downturn, so as to get a new President who would deliver massive tax cuts for the ultra-rich.  (Remember the “balanced budget amendment” and compare with the current deficits.)  And they have placed in power and continue to support a person who in their own words “continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”  It’s a good idea to think about the crash.

Despite the much-discussed topics of globalization and automation, we are not living with unsolvable acts of God.  And there are no secret demons running around hidden in the depths of the administrative state.  Dramatically rising inequality—and the decline of the middle class—is not an accident, but a chosen result.  The deep divisions that exist in our society are not an accident, but a chosen result.  Follow the money.  Divide and conquer is nothing new.

This country has dealt successfully in the past with industrialization and massive immigration.  And was stronger for both.  And we were able to share that prosperity more broadly than it had even been done before.  We can do it again.  The current, hard-won worldwide prosperity should be good for everyone if it weren’t being sacrificed to greed.

This isn’t going to be easy.  The current inhumane, anti-democratic Supreme Court will be around for a long time.  The much-encouraged divisions in the society will not heal easily.  But we can start by heeding the recent advice of John McCain and vote out this cult that can’t even be called conservatives.  Democrats have a great variety of people running in this critical election.  Breadth of opinions is a good thing.  Belief in democracy is a requirement.

This needs to be done.  What we do matters everywhere.  We are the leaders of the free world, and that leadership is dearly missed.

Small Bits of Reality

Two obvious bits of economic reality worth emphasizing:

  1. Trump and the stock market

Stock prices are directly related to earnings.  Cuts to corporate taxes translate directly to earnings.  Stock prices rose with the expectation of Trump’s corporate tax cuts, and he delivered.

At this point nothing else has happened (other than the uncertainty of the trade wars).  The recent rise in corporate earnings is not a reflection of new business activity, it’s just the reality of the money we’ve all given them.  That’s a matter of profits and the next item to be mentioned ….

  1. How those tax cuts have been spent

Imagine you’re a corporate CEO who has just put together a new business plan.  The cost of capital is extremely low, so money alone cannot be viewed as a serious brake on new opportunities.  You have submitted your business plan to your board, and it has been approved.  Somebody now gives you a bunch of money.  Does that invalidate your business plan?  Were you wrong about the opportunities?

Next you’re an investor in that business.  You’ve watched the tax cuts coming from the beginning, so you know there’s a bunch of new money that just came in.  The CEO has already told you that his business plan is taking advantage of the opportunities worth pursuing.  Whose money is that—it’s mine!

Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what happened.  “Stock buybacks to boost investor share value.”

In other words, the best thing companies have found to do with taxpayer money is to pass it straight through to their investors!

 

 

NY Times: Inviting the Next Financial Crisis

This NY Times Editorial Board piece is the best summary I’ve seen of where we are and how we got there.

Our comment:

Maybe I missed it, but one thing that isn’t explicitly noted is how much worse this could be than 2008. The major stimulus then came from the US and China, both of whom are far less able today. Also the IMF issued a warning a few months ago about an enormous increase in the global level of debt. What’s particularly galling about the current situation is that the current, hard-won worldwide prosperity IS sustainable if it weren’t being sacrificed to greed.

I was glad to see the article point out the unconscionable cruelty of the Republican party in deliberately prolonging the effects of the downturn so as to sow discontent for the election. We should call things for what they were: the Republicans held the country hostage for six years, so they could deliver massive tax cuts for their ultra-rich donors.

It’s Always the Elites and the Foreigners

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A recent book serves as a reminder of what happened in the economic collapse of 2008.  Lessons from 1929 were learned, and the world pulled itself back a few inches from the brink.  Major economies, principally the US and China, pushed enough money into the world financial system to keep it going.   We didn’t have a depression, and ten years later we’re doing well enough that we seem ready to forget.

Who were our friends in 2008?  The Chinese and the competent people who knew what they were doing.  Who won out?  Opportunists of various stripes who saw the near-depression as an opening.   And their villains were the usual suspects:  elites and foreigners.

Elites and foreigners are always convenient scapegoats, but scapegoating these days seems to dominate all political discourse.  That is a problem for both the left and the right.  Let’s start with “elites”.

On one side there is multi-millionaire Trump, who has never wanted for anything or hidden his blatant self-interest, but who has nonetheless successfully portrayed himself as a warrior against elites!  From his inaugural address: “a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”  On the other side I’ll quote a recent email article from Robert Kuttner admiring Trump’s trade war against China and decrying how “the corruption of ruling U.S. elites created a vacuum that opened the door to Trumpism.”

When you come down to it, in both cases the elites are charged with the crime of turning the US into something that doesn’t look like a rose-colored picture of the 1950’s and 60’s, when America was “great.”  It’s convenient to find someone to blame for those changes, but the world is not the same.

You can argue about trade policy (and why it happened), but you can’t wave away the accelerating effects of technology and globalization (itself fueled by technology) with scapegoating.  No nation today can isolate itself behind tariff walls or anything else and maintain its standard of living.  We’ve done a bad job of solving problems of transition for the current real world, but trivializing those problems doesn’t help.  In Trump’s case we have the craziness of reducing support for education and research while promoting coal mining instead.  His trade wars are more a publicity stunt than a solution to the problems of the working class.

There’s another issue too.  As a nation we are in desperate need of elites:  the people who make our economy go and who understand how things work.  Who kept us out of depression following 2008.  But those aren’t the only elites in the picture.  There’s Trump. There are the ultra-rich behind the Koch organization who want to maximize their profits and bring back the not-so-great gilded age.  There are the politicians and lobbyists in Washington.  There are even the sinister invisible elites we keep hearing about behind the scenes.  Accusing “elites” mixes up the picture.  It creates innocent targets as a mask for not solving real problems such as education, wages, economic dislocation, racism, financial and geographic inequality…

With “foreigners” the problem is if anything worse.  It is worth remembering our common interest with the Chinese in 2008.  Despite the current trade war propaganda, China is neither friend nor enemy.  China is a major partner in worldwide, technology-fueled growth that has made the world and us richer.  They are a major player with a common interest in dealing with climate change.  You can’t deny their effect on the domestic economy, but we also contributed to the pain.

We have specific issues that need to be addressed—e.g. intellectual property, opening of markets in a now richer China—however the main challenge from the Chinese is that they are good at what they do.  American high-tech companies have had trouble making headway in China largely because of real competition.  As China grows, we need to remain at the top of our game and to adapt to a world where we are not the largest and richest market (already true).  That could be quite a good future with new products and new markets, or we could all strangle in trade (and possibly real) wars.

The divisions in this country are deep, but it is perhaps encouraging that it is less about issues than about scapegoats.  If we could just remember that it is NOT all about ill-defined elites and foreigners, we could get quite a lot done.

 

 

If Not Now When?

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We are ten years into the current business cycle.  We have not repealed the law of gravity.  The cycle will end, and history says sooner than we would like to think.

It’s important to recognize what that means.  Very simply we have to be realistic about what we’ve put off for tomorrow.  If we’re not serious about something today, there is a fair chance that tomorrow isn’t going to come any time soon.

Let’s make a short list of what we’re not serious about:

Education:  Funding for education has never recovered from the 2008 crash.  This affects all aspects (building, salaries, equipment) and all levels.  It directly contributed to the student loan crisis.  It affects the well-being of young people and our competitiveness as a nation.

Infrastructure:  Both candidates raised the issue in the election, but nothing serious has been done.

Opioid crisis:  This is a monumental problem that has thus far received only lip service.

Wages:  Businesses got a huge tax break with the Trump tax plan, but nothing has shown up in wages.  We can’t even talk about raising the minimum wage from its historic (inflation-adjusted) lows.

Medical coverage:  ACA has been deliberately crippled with nothing coherent to replace it.

Climate change:  We can pay now or pay more later, but we won’t be able to run away from it.  Thus far we’ve just closed our eyes, but the changes will be non-trivial.  Carbon capture—the least drastic path in the most optimistic estimates—would be at least 5-10 Trillion dollars a year worldwide.

 

In these good times we’ve chosen not to address any of those issues.   Tax cuts for businesses (now turned into stock buybacks) took precedence.

Unless something changes soon we should recognize that we have chosen to live with all of those problems—for as long as anyone can see.