Education—Student Loan Debt and the Rest

The public discussion of Biden’s student loan plan seems to be about some other country—certainly not this one.

Much of the discussion takes the point of view that Biden’s plan is a wildly-expensive and unnecessary change, since post-secondary education is functioning the way it always has.  And further the plan isn’t sufficiently targeted to the poor, so there is no point in doing it.

In fact post-secondary education in this country is so broken you hardly know where to start.  And the people targeted by the plan were so badly screwed by us that we have a responsibility to notice. 

Let’s look at the history.  The following chart is a point of departure:

It’s obvious from the chart that around 2008 something happened to the cost of college—it took off.  A prime ingredient was the George Bush’s 2008 crash, which was a double whammy:  states had less money to spend—so tuition went up—and students and their parents had less money to pay it.  As we all learned during the Covid crisis, states have limited ability to deal with new expenses, as many are prohibited from running deficits.  They need to rely on the federal government to help them out. 

However the Republican Congress blocked all stimulus (remember the “balanced budget amendment”) to provoke dissatisfaction for the 2016 election.  So there was no help to be had.   Unsurprisingly people had to take on new levels of debt.  And with Republicans continuing to sabotage the recovery, there were few jobs for these people when they graduated (or didn’t) and went immediately into arrears.  Student load debt didn’t grow because students were irresponsible, it grew because government was.

Adding to that, Republicans spent years protecting fraudulent private pseudo-educational institutions because of the supposed superiority of the private sector.  At such places you could earn a degree in “culinary arts”, for example, which was considered valueless in any real restaurant.   Essentially all students at those institutions incurred monumental levels of debt and no skills.  The worst of those have now been shut down, but Betsy DeVos did everything she could to defend them.

As a country we screwed a generation of students.  From the numbers on the chart, $10 or $20 thousand seems relevant, but assuredly not profligate. As for inflation, the risk has been exaggerated by false comparison to the stimulus packages.  The cost here is budgeted over decades; its current impact is minimal.

However we should be clear that this is a Band-Aid on a God-awful wound, because for the most part things have only gotten worse.

First of all, averaging over all institutions in the country gets a rather diverse mix of good and bad colleges. That’s appropriate for addressing needs of borrowers.  However If you want to go to a good institution to get yourself a good job, the numbers are basically twice what’s on the chart:  around $20 thousand yearly for a good public institution.   For private colleges, we can be more exact since they act as a cartel:  $80K.   Even applying to these places can cost thousands.  So much for equality of opportunity. 

What’s more the public university system, instead of being strengthened, is under attack.  That’s not just a matter of the well-publicized politization of education, bad as that is.   Public funding in many states has been reduced to the point that public colleges are admitting out-of-state (or out-of-country) students in preference to in-state ones, because they need the extra money.  That has actually become a major contributor to student loan debt!  The financial situation is so dire that colleges are spending more on administrators to raise money than on education itself.

All of that sounds like a hard problem, but as with healthcare, just about every other developed country has found a way to do it.  We need to strengthen the public system with necessarily more of a role for federal funding.  Public education has to be first-rate and affordable—and available to everyone in every state.  We’ve got to banish the preposterous model of education as a severely-limited resource with parents ready to kill to get their children into the right places!  In addition we need to limit the size of loans people need to take and be rational about the payback.  The Australian system, with payback based on ability to pay, is one working option.

It’s worth stating the obvious fact that with the current cost of education, the only way we’re keeping this country going is by importing foreign graduates (and telling them how much we hate their being here!).  We’d have to shut down Silicon Valley otherwise.  We should also be clear that when we talk about national security we’re talking not about aircraft carriers but about our national competence in key technologies.

It is also worth stressing the problem is NOT (despite rumblings from both the left and the right) that we’re sending too many people to college.  Good jobs need sophisticated training.  You can look at the government’s own (or anyone else’s) expectations of the jobs we’re going to need to fill.  Sure there should be more specifically vocational training also, but that’s not the answer to the problem we know we’ve got. Also we’ve learned from the Covid experience that online instruction is no silver bullet to replace teachers.

Finally it’s worth responding to the charge that we’re not sufficiently targeting our payments to the poor.  The fact is that the only route to equality of opportunity is making sure that there is a first-class system available to everyone.  We used to understand that.  We were the first to recognize that secondary education needed to be available to everyone.  Eventually other countries caught on, because there was a big advantage to the country in doing it.

This has been proven so many times it’s ridiculous to have to state it—education is the backbone of the strength of the country.  Despite some rhetoric, there’s nothing either left-wing or right-wing about this. Even Adam Smith knew it—he didn’t futz around wondering how little training poor people could get by with, he wanted universal literacy in the eighteenth century.  If we want to succeed as a nation, we need to succeed at education.

Propagandists for Power

This note is occasioned by John McWhorter’s piece in the NY Times, basically praising Clarence Thomas as a thinker who has been too easily dismissed.

While I agree with Mr. McWhorter on some subjects, I think he is very wrong on this one.  And his mistake is the same one made by other people about other public figures.

First about Clarence Thomas:

  • He is someone who has received help every step of his career, but who has nonetheless declared himself self-made.  His autobiography is emphatic to the point of absurdity on the subject. 
  • His general philosophy is heavily influenced by that mythology.  Like many other pseudo-self-made people (there are admittedly more rich than poor of them), he asserts “I did it, so can anyone else who has what it takes.”  No one should be asking government for help.  That he sincerely believes this does not make it either true or admirable.
  • Despite his self-delusions, he has not achieved his success as a thinker.  He has achieved success as a propagandist for power.  His ideas, however well or badly thought-out, are irrelevant to his current position.  He is a tool in the Koch organization’s (and Republican party’s) battle plan.  The position being propagated is simple and convenient:  we just don’t have to care.
  • Contrary to what you sometimes read in the papers, he has not driven the Supreme Court to its current position on the extreme right.  That is a Koch-managed and funded enterprise that has put a succession of Federalist Society judges on the Court.

We should now talk more generally.  There were places and times in the past when people seemed at least worried about selling out.  That is, whether they were putting personal advantage above some notion of morality.

We are no longer at that place or time.  In the United States (and elsewhere) today, there is no morality stronger than financial success.  People don’t need to agonize anymore, because riches are proof of morality.  That’s the Clarence Thomas problem, and he is far from the only example.

I’d even put Milton Friedman in that category (along with a good chunk of the Federalist Society).  Milton Friedman was certainly capable of understanding the logical flaw in his argument:  it’s okay to declare that corporations serve their stockholders—but only if someone else is minding the store.  If those same corporations are also running government, then no one is minding the store.  Instead he made himself a wealthy and respected genius, again as a propagandist for power.

No one should be venerating propagandists for power, no matter how sincere such people believe themselves to be.

The One Million Covid Victims Have a Message

At least half of these deaths were due to deliberate misinformation from political interests calling the whole pandemic a left-wing plot.  For month after month the most popular story in the Wall Street Journal was the latest reason why there was really nothing going on:  it was just like normal flu; it was worst in New York because it was only in disgusting cities full of disgusting people.

Everyone in the country suffered, including very many who bought into the party line because they thought the propagandists were on their side.  Since vaccines were coming, deaths delayed could be deaths avoided. What’s worse, almost of half the people who died were unvaccinated when they could have been, convinced by the arguments of people like the Fox hosts-who were actually vaccinated for themselves.

This Covid story is unfortunately typical of what’s happening in this country.  The “populists” are the Kochs and the Mercers and the Thiels—people with the money to fill newspapers with issues they don’t care about (abortion, guns) so they can ride them all the way to the bank.  The only major piece of legislation passed in the Trump years was the monumental tax cut for the rich.  As with Covid, the supporters drawn in with identity issues are the ones who will suffer—in jobs, healthcare, education, climate, you name it.

Taking this one step further, it is worth noting that the damage with Covid was not from action but from inaction.  Most of the endless discussions of our fractured political system are missing the point.  The country is ungovernable because they want it that way.  If government can’t act, the powers that be are running things.  As Steve Bannon put it, all we need to do is create chaos. 

This story isn’t complicated, just lost in the cacophony of bought media.

Elon Musk as Time’s Person of the Year

There is nothing wrong in celebrating Elon Musk, who has achieved much of real value.  There are even good messages to be drawn from those achievements.   However there are also plenty of wrong conclusions that can and are being drawn about Musk.  So it’s worth thinking about what’s wrong and what’s right.

Wrong message #1:  We don’t need government involvement in the economy; the private sector can be counted on to get the job done.

Fact:  Tesla was started with Obama-era seed money and Obama-era price subsidies for electric car sales.   SpaceX got going with NASA contracts.  Without government involvement we would have had neither. The major US automakers had to be dragged kicking and screaming to electric cars.   The private sector is not good at supporting novel projects without a near-term payoff.

Wrong message #2:  We can count on smart people like Musk to tell us what to do.

Fact:  High achievers have their limitations and blinders just like everyone else.  Musk’s statement that we don’t need “Build Back Better” because he himself never needed help from anyone is actually typical blindness of the class.  I worked for a successful startup where the four principals fell out with each other almost immediately after we went public—because each was sure he was the reason for success!

Wrong message #3:  In the end we can always count on American ingenuity.

Fact:  Musk is one more example of the importance of immigrants and children of immigrants to the American economy.   Same for Apple and Google.

Wrong message #4:  A few big heroes are what makes for national success.

Fact:  Musk was important as a technical visionary.  No one else recognized that the technological basis existed for an electric car company.  However he also fostered an environment where he could attract the best and brightest to his companies.   The achievements of Tesla and Space X have that broader basis.

What’s more, the Person of the Year could equally well have been given to the many scientists and technologists who gave us the Covid vaccines.  There are more than a few single heroes in our midst.  Big achievements reflect individual contributions of many able people.

I’ll limit the right messages to two:

Right message #1:  Technology matters, and things really can change

Both Tesla and SpaceX are fundamentally new businesses, rethought from the bottom up.  In a very few years they have changed the US economy.

As contrast, a recent book about the Boeing 737 MAX shows what happens a company loses track of the reality of its business in a blind race for profit.

Right message #2:  At all levels individuals can make a difference and should be rewarded accordingly

This is particularly important in technology-driven companies, but not only there.  As noted, that was important not just for Musk himself but also within Musk’s companies.   For contrast, my contacts at NASA and even JPL have described them as stiflingly bureaucratic.  The difference between the SpaceX and the SLS project is undeniable.

Both companies and countries have a tendency to ossify into hierarchical structures that declare themselves to be meritocracies.  Equality of opportunity—including opportunity for real success—is necessary both for individuals and for the success of the overall enterprise.   For society as a whole, we need both a safety net and true opportunities for individuals to succeed.

That, not the pronouncements of Elon Musk, is what makes for success as a nation.

Stop Playing the Republicans’ Games

As Democrats, our message has to be that we are in business to make life better for everyone—white, black, or anything else.  Life for most people in the US is poorer, more stressful, and more uncertain than in any other developed country.  That’s a fixable problem, and we’re trying to do it.  It’s not easy to fight the powers that be—so it’s not pretty as a process—but we’re up for the fight.  Climate fits in that picture as well.  Racism has its particular challenges. But we are moving everyone up.

That message is not compatible with the current chest-beating (mostly self-appointed) about how morally superior we are to the moronic white racists.   “Those people just have to get used to giving up the advantages they’ve enjoyed by being white, so they ought to suffer.”  Not a great way to get elected and not what we stand for.  It’s a false premise that we have to trade one group off against another.

That false premise is not just counterproductive as a message, it also leads to bad policy.  It is not okay to assume that it’s fine to make the other guy suffer.  In education, it is not okay to ignore kids who are successful, because they’re not the ones that count.  (I can tell you about mixed classes in middle school math.) With education, as in everything else, we are in it to make things better for everyone.  Fighting over insufficiently-provided resources—college slots or AP classes—is not the answer. Watering down education for the supposed benefit of the disadvantaged benefits no one.  And both are distractions from the many other items (e.g. family economic stability) that are needed if we really want equality of opportunity.  The objective is excellence for all.

We’re still living down “defund the police”—with columnists talking about how it is perfectly okay for mobs to trash the businesses of random people.  This education stuff is if anything worse, because it turns racial progress into a threat.  That may make some people happy, but it’s not productive, and it isn’t even to the advantage of the people it purports to serve.

As to what we ought to be talking about, it seems that vaccination is a marvelous metaphor for everything the Republican Party stands for.   Vaccinated people don’t get sick and die; unvaccinated people do.  The people cheering on the unvaccinated are largely vaccinated themselves (e.g. Murdoch and Fox people).  They’re sacrificing their supporters to the task of keeping themselves in power.  So they can continue to take their money–not just in taxes but in medical expenses, education expenses, and job insecurity.

There are lots of false bogeymen here.  “We can’t have those benefits without tanking the economy.”  “Just look at the inflation we’re already getting from the Democrats’ spending.”  Virtually all the benefits of Trump tax cuts went to the ultra-rich.  Virtually all of the corporate benefits went to stock buybacks instead of new investment.  Virtually all of the inflation is from shortages created by continuing Covid supply issues. Just as the Obama-era Republicans kept the country poor by blocking all stimulus, the current Republicans are deliberately keeping the country poor by blocking the national recovery from Covid.

One thing that is certainly true is that our strength as a nation, both economic and military, is built on people.  That means developing the capabilities of our population, spending on education and research, and getting the best and brightest from everywhere to come here.  Furthermore we need to develop the infrastructure (e.g. for climate change, 5G) that the economy will need for the future.  The Republican Party has proved it is ready to sacrifice all of that to profits returned to wealthy investors—and deliberately-incited divisiveness.

We need to be a nation united by policies that serve everyone.  Our history was written by contributions from all levels of society, including many categories people written off both here and abroad.  The divisions we have are more sown than real, so the most important message is that we are in this for all.  That’s the only way forward.

Fixing Capitalism


California Bank” by waltarrrrr is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s a lot of talk these days about fixing capitalism.   However, there’s a problem with much of it—there are so many things to fix that it all becomes a daunting task.  The point of view here is simpler.  There are a great many things that aren’t happening, because capitalism just doesn’t do them—and we can start by making sure those get done.

At its source this problem comes from our being force-fed the wildly radical idea that the private sector—capitalism—will solve all problems by itself.  So even when we realize that capitalism needs to be fixed, we tend to be overly concerned with all the patches.

However, even Adam Smith had no delusions about the limitations of capitalism.  As he pointed out:

  1. The private sector will not police itself.

On the contrary it will do everything possible to corrupt the free market with monopolies and government influence: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”  We’re used to hearing “private sector” and “free market” used almost as synonyms.   In fact, as Smith recognized, the free market is an ideal that can only be achieved when government holds the private sector accountable.

  1. The private sector will not provide the environment for its own success.

Smith even advocated a government program of universal literacy, quite a stretch for the eighteenth century and a pointer for us today.  This is a serious matter, because it shows how dangerous it is for the economy to punt everything to the private sector.

  1. Much of what is needed for a successful society is simply out of scope for the private sector.

Capitalism will not provide any service where there is no competitive advantage in doing it.  Public health and welfare, environmental questions, basic science, etc. are all out of scope.

Fixing capitalism strictly speaking deals only with the first category.  No amount of fixing is going to make capitalism deal with the rest.  Those issues are ours to solve.

It’s instructive to think about needs in each category.

  1. Policing the private sector

Monopolies are still with us and have become an increasing problem due to technology changes and weakened anti-trust enforcement.  The same is also true of corruption due to business influence on government.  These days no one even apologizes for it.

This is particularly true in the financial sector where banking, for example, has evolved into speculative gambling with losses covered by the FDIC.  You can even argue that the financial sector overall has evolved in directions that make it predatory on productive business.  After decades of Republican-inspired hands-off attitudes toward business, there is no shortage of serious issues.  However fixing all of them makes progress look far away.

Taking a step back, there is a single biggest problem:  legal tax evasion.  This is a gating item for so much progress that it just has to be dealt with.  Even before Trump’s tax cuts (and despite nominal tax rates), American companies paid the lowest effective taxes as a percent of income of any developed country.  That was largely a result of multinationals’ ability to move income to tax shelter countries—reducing rates or hiding income entirely.  Apple is only one egregious case.  The recent tax cuts made matters worse with drastically-reduced business rates, arcane rule changes for overseas income, and the new pass-through income treatment.  That pumped up the deficit—thereby hobbling government’s ability to respond to the serious sins of omission in categories 2 & 3.

What’s more, despite the insistent propaganda, taxes are actually not a primary issue for American competitiveness:

– Many studies have shown that in most industries today business profit levels reflect monopoly power to set prices well above historic levels of margin.  That’s a trend we can expect to continue.  In other words, businesses have considerable financial room to pay taxes.

– Further, as frequently noted, the savings from the tax cuts went primarily into stock buybacks.  That is companies decided the best thing to do with the tax cut money was to give it back to their investors in higher stock prices.

Conclusion:   Get the private sector (particularly large multinationals) and its investors to pay taxes.  Then work through all the rest.

  1. Providing the environment for economic success

If taxes aren’t the issue for American competitiveness, what is?  As we’ve noted here before, what makes for success is the technological advantage that has kept us in many areas on top of the heap.  That supports both our standard of living and our military strength.

Our technical dominance is based on three factors:

i. The dynamism of our economic system in generating new products and technologies.

ii. Broadly-based government support of research and education

iii. Remaining the preferred destination for entrepreneurs and other ambitious people from everywhere to realize their dreams

Let’s look at the current status of all three:

i. Unchallenged influence of big companies on government has favored established companies over new entrants. In part this is an anti-trust enforcement issue, but it has many other aspects.  The demise of net neutrality is one highly-visible example.

On this issue the interest of big business is strongly opposed to what makes for long-term national success.

ii. The administration is actively hostile toward science, government-sponsored research, and broad-based education. This is shown in purging of scientists from government agencies and restricting their influence on public policy.  One obvious example is in climate change.  Also the new tax law punished major research universities with a targeted tax.

Public investment in research had a major role in the prosperity of the 1950’s and 60’s and kicked off the opportunities of internet today.  The same kind of public investment has remade China as a technology powerhouse.  But our dedication to research has eroded over time:


Instead we’re waiting for the private sector to do the job, which by definition means catch-up.

The story for education is similar.   In the 1950’s and 60’s we were expanding educational opportunities to whole classes of people who had never before had the chance.   Now we rank far down on the list for upward mobility.  Student loan debt tells the same story, and that’s only about the people DID go to college, not about the ones who were deterred by cost and DIDN’T.  Finally, educational funding in the states has never recovered from the 2008 crash.

It’s worth mentioning in passing that the value of research is not only for international competitiveness.  Basic research is part of the global project of raising human standards of living. Even when one worries about national competitiveness, progress is generally so international that openness is the ante for remaining at the forefront of progress.  Current policy to restrict international participation of US scientists weakens the country in the name of national security.

iii.  As a final point we need to emphasize the critical role that foreigners and their children are playing in maintaining our national strengths.  Many studies have shown their role both in starting new companies and in supplying the technical underpinning that makes for success.  As Steve Bannon noted (for his own purposes) such people represent more than half of Silicon Valley activity.  Google (cofounded by a foreigner) and Apple (by the son of a foreigner) are only the most obvious examples.

The current xenophobic backlash is wildly off-target.  Particularly with the weakened support for research and education, those are the people keeping our place in the sun.  (To be clear, an immigration plan that only accepts people with degrees is no counterweight to the nationalist, nativist rhetoric.)


– This area has got to be fixed or we risk losing our standard of living and dominant role.  These are traditional US values and as important as ever for US success.   It we’re worried about competing with Chinese, this is where the battle will be lost or won.

– If we can get our act together, items i and iii should remain as our advantages going forward.  So we shouldn’t be defeatist about a future that is in our hands.

  1. Spending for the common good

This has been a bastard child for so many decades now, that there is much that needs to be caught up.  Here is one short list:

– Infrastructure (Much discussed, but with more sides to it than you might think.  See here for a good overview.)

– Climate change (Evidence has become incontrovertible, but we still need a real plan.)

– Universal health care (Needed not only as a benefit but also as an enabler for equal opportunity.)

– Opioid crisis (Much discussed, but with radically inadequate funding)

– Environmental protection (Not a luxury)

– Transitional assistance (Helping people through changes—from technology, globalization, etc.)

There is enough essential work here to pose a major challenge for government.  We need to confront the unmet needs of the society, then we need concrete plans, and finally we need to manage major operations with competence and integrity.  Despite the propaganda there is nothing unusual about effective, government-sponsored work.  However as with any other enterprises, this needs to be scrupulously well-run.  Just because good people are running it doesn’t mean there is less risk of corruption.  We have to get serious about public enterprise.

That means we have to get past the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong about working for the public good.  That’s after all nothing more than the other side of the “private sector will solve everything” coin.  We live with the continued juxtaposition of vast under-employment (3.7% unemployment doesn’t change the good union jobs replaced by Walmart) together with vast unmet needs that the private sector won’t address.  We’ve got to take the initiative to match one with the other.  This is not “make work”.  It’s essential work that isn’t getting done, because the private sector won’t do it.

Until we take that initiative, it’s hard to assess where we are as a society.  Public enterprise helps in many ways.  It helps with inequality and the middle class.  It helps with leverage for workers and standards for employment.  Many public sector jobs of their nature will be hard to outsource.  It makes no sense to talk about abstractions such as Universal Basic Income until we see how things shake out in a fully-functional economy.  The future may be less strange or scary than it seems.  (This isn’t just about public sector employment; work done by the public sector helps other trends as well.  Even in Silicon Valley each job in tech creates 4.3 other jobs as well.)

Conclusion:   We need to create the full-scale machinery for government service to do what the private sector won’t.

It’s always hard to foresee the future.  I remember when I was in high school, Prince Philip gave a commencement address at UCLA in which he spoke (as world expert!) about leisure.  Already then he was thinking that machines would take over work, leaving as us all to spend the rest of our lives at the beach.

That’s certainly not what happened, but there’s still something to be said for the positive spin.  Historically technology and even globalization have been good for living standards, except where societies have chosen to deny the benefits to large segments of their populations.  Both domestically and internationally we have every opportunity to do this right.  We can either organize our economy–and the world order–so that all can benefit, or we can go down in flames of our own making.

More To Say About China


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.

Prosperity in Today’s Economy


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.


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.