Getting Productive with China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that we can make some suggestions:

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

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.

Open for Business at Davos

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Welcome to the United States.   We’re a great place to do business.

In America you come first!  Just look at what we’ve got:

  • Powerless unions.
  • No stupid rules for working conditions.
  • Do what you want to the environment.
  • Hire and fire as you please.
  • Healthcare plans optional.
  • Employers win all legal challenges.
  • Play states against each other for gifts.
  • Lowest taxes anywhere—the “locals” are not your problem!

You may have lost your colonies, but now there is the new America:

The land where you don’t have to care!

Shock and Awe

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It’s odd how people seem surprised at the level of corruption and outright incompetence coming from the Republican party.  We need to remember a bit.

The arrival of George W. Bush was not as traumatic as Trump’s, but then as now we got a new troupe of players (remember the neocons?) who were convinced they were geniuses, and that every other idea represented the stupid old world they were here to transcend.   That affected both the economy (government regulation does nothing good) and international relations (let’s remake the world for freedom and democracy).

It took a little while, but they were a catastrophe on all fronts.  The deregulation movement’s hands-off treatment of the economy produced a new, unregulated banking system—mortgage-backed securities—that ultimately crashed, producing the worst downturn since the great Depression.   $6T of “safe as banking” securities were wiped out.  Only the Democrats’ support of the bank bailouts kept us out of a real depression.

And of course we fought a $3T war that was justified by lies, produced no benefits to the US, and undermined US interests everywhere in the Middle East.  (ISIS was one consequence.)  Even today it’s hard to know what was really behind that war, but it is a fact that the only place in the world where people think it was anything but oil is here!

There are two other important but largely unstated points to be made about that war:

– That fact that it was unbudgeted contributed mightily to the difficulty of recovering from the crash.  In general terms governments need to act countercyclically, i.e. they should save in good times, because they need to spend in bad.   This is not rocket science, but we did exactly the opposite and in a big, untransparent way.   So recovery from the crash had to be all deficit, which made it easier for the Republican balanced-budget hypocrisy to prolong the pain.

– The result of the war was not just what was done, but also what couldn’t get done.  That affected the Middle East, where the greatest opportunity for change was for US money to grease the peace process.   That opportunity was lost forever.  ($3T would have created a true land of milk and honey!)  But that wasn’t the end of it.  That lost opportunities were here too.   Post 2008 we have found we have money for nothing, not even education.  Part of that problem has been Republican party priorities, but the fact remains we are not the first country to impoverish ourselves with a stupid war.

 

Fast forward to the present.   We’ve got a new bunch of geniuses who have no need for either information or expertise.  They’re smart!

We are now at a stage like the “shock and awe” of the Iraq war.  Reality has not yet had time to intrude on the fantasies.  But we need to remember, it can be that bad!

Where will we go from here?   The picture has a lot in common with the story just told:

– The economy

We seem to have learned nothing from 2008.  With the tax plan we are stimulating the economy at the wrong stage of the business cycle and running a deficit to do it.  Further we are removing Dodd-Frank and everything else enacted to control bad behavior.   There’s also little evidence that these people will do what it takes in case of a crash.

– War

This administration seems even more cavalier about war than Bush people.  We’ve had continuing belligerence with North Korea and Iran and a budget with an untargeted military buildup.  There’s real risk of a crazy war on impulse—with as little planning or understanding of consequences as last time.   We have to hope it won’t be nuclear.

– Russia

Russian is a constant adversary, and our buddy-buddy relationship with Putin is problematical.  Russians are proven experts in cyberwarfare, and the demonstrated impact of viruses points out the threat.  There is even a possible Russia-North Korea connection.  We stop watching them at our peril.

– Climate change

The evidence behind climate change is more than considerable.  As a risk, it is well past the point where any serious business would start paying attention to it.   We have instead decided we’re too smart to have to think.   We are risking our own future, and handcuffing our businesses that would be part of the solution.  The Chinese have taken our place and are running with it, while for us even planning is out of the question.  This is a double whammy—more heat, storms, and drought combined with loss of industrial preeminence.

Those items are not just speculation.   We’re all set to pass the economics into law.  The war rhetoric is if anything more pronounced than with the Bush administration.   For climate change this is stated and active policy.    The Russian case is a little different, but it underlines the seriousness of the dangers.  We just barely escaped with Bush; this time it looks worse.

Again we’re powerless in dealing with geniuses who can’t be bothered with facts, expertise, public opinion or anything else that gets in the way of their greatness.  We can have no confidence, for example, that Trump either understands or takes seriously the fact that a nuclear attack on North Korea will have consequences for the US even without retaliation.  Trump’s statement on deregulating Wall Street, just like his statement on leaving the Paris Accords, acknowledged no risks.

It’s all too easy to forget the past, but we’ve learned that such “genius” has consequences.  The end of this story will not be pretty.

No segment of the population—Republican or Democratic—should believe anything else.

Finding Reality

pew-studyThis item grows out of a recent study noting that in the US today few people have friends on the other side of the ideological fence.

It’s easy to imagine how that happens—there are just too many subjects to avoid!   That raises the question of why all those topics are taboo.   There are many reasons, but we deal here with one specific problem:  distinguishing real issues from pretexts.

The problem is that while there are plenty of real policy issues where debate should be possible, they tend to be mixed-in with taboo topics where the policy positions are actually donor’s self-interested pretexts (“climate change is a discredited hoax”).  Public debates can be (and often are) staged to discuss issues in the taboo category, but they never get very far.  There’s not much to be discussed when the stated policy is not the point.

It’s not necessarily easy to figure out what’s real, and undoubtedly many people will disagree with the examples here.   However the idea is to focus on a few issue areas where we as a country ought to be able to make progress if we can keep track of what is real and what isn’t.

We put issues in two categories:  non-issues and real issues.  Non-issues are issues only if donors (or other political considerations) force them to be.    We owe it to the country to get past them.  Real issues are the significant questions we need to solve.

 

  1. Climate change

As just noted, climate change is a poster child for pretexts.  There is of course one primary reason this whole subject is partisan, and his name is Charles Koch.  In addition to the false hoax claim, there is a continually-morphing litany of other misrepresentations.  It used to be easier to be a skeptic.  By now more than enough is known, so that ordinary risk analysis says the time has come to get serious.

Non-issues

Climate change is real.

Burning of fossil fuels is causing it.

The people working on it are not political hacks, but dedicated scientists faced with a hard problem.

Real issues

Risk assessment and what needs to happen now.  Steps and timing.

Roles of government and the private sector, e.g. supporting the power companies.

How research, particularly energy research, can best support the private sector.

What infrastructure changes will be needed and when?  Where will the jobs go?

Coordinating the whole effort.

It is worth pointing out that there are plenty of good, multi-year working-class jobs involved in dealing with climate change.

 

  1. Environmental policy and the EPA

What is frustrating about this topic is the extent to which the whole discussion of environmental regulation has gone on without specifics.   Is it really possible to believe that all environmental regulation is bad?  Even after the Flint disaster?  It is not viable to have environmental regulation whipsawed back and forth between administrations.

Non-issues

Not all environmental regulation is bad.

Not all environmental regulation is bad for business.

Real issues

Agreed-upon standards for regulation.  Work from the current list of Trump administration actions and responses.   Criteria to avoid overreach by all sides.

What is an appropriate process to assure that both the public interest and businesses have a say?

Should there be compensation for consequences of new rules?

 

  1. Healthcare

Now that all the repeal and replace nightmares are out of our system, we really ought to be able to do something good about healthcare.   This isn’t rocket science.   Every other prosperous country has come up with something that works.

Non-issues

Obamacare works well enough to be a starting point.  Sabotaging it helps no one.

The country needs a nationwide solution.  Uniform treatment for all people is good.

Single-payer systems are used by most of the world and may have a role to play.

Real issues

Availability of plans

Cost of plans

Assuring participation and coverage

Addressing needs of businesses

Getting religion out of the debate

Controlling costs of the program

 

  1. Jobs

Thus far the whole treatment of jobs has been based on campaign slogans.  The current tax cut plan is a case in point.   The millions of affected people deserve better.

Non-issues

Decline of good, low-skill working class jobs.

Decline in workforce participation.

Decline of upward mobility in the US.

No silver bullet.

Real issues

What is and isn’t cured by growth.

Workable options for tariffs, subsidies, or other government actions on trade.

Long-standing issues with wage growth and inequality.

Role of education.

Role of government as an employer (e.g. infrastructure, climate projects).

Budget impact and tax plans.

Geographic coverage.

Protecting the next generation.

 

It would be nice to believe that the country is now ready to get down to work.   On real issues some level of bipartisan cooperation could even be the norm.

The NFL and the EPA

Nothing more needs to be said about the cowardly and calculated attacks launched by Trump on individual NFL and NBA players.  But it’s hard not to be shocked by the deliberate appeal to racial hatred—we know all about those traitorous bastards.

However, the main subject here is the attack on the NFL itself and what’s behind that one.  For anyone who has somehow managed to escape it, here is the quote:

“Today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television—his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.”

The first thing about this quote is that it was not made up off-the-cuff; he told exactly the same story a year ago so he knows what he is saying.  In that case he made the conclusion explicit:  the problem with the NFL is that “it’s become soft and our country has become soft.”

What does that actually mean?  He is asserting that it shows our moral superiority as a nation if one of our most widely-watched activities is a spectacle in which people are maimed for life.   Why would he say that?  Part of it may be cultural I suppose, but not all of it.   In this particular context he’s talking about working conditions and attitudes of viewers.   There should be no constraints on what people are asked to do, and it shows weakness to care about it.

The “working conditions” comment is not far-fetched.   This is exactly what is proposed for OSHA—businesses should be able to get away with whatever they deem necessary.  Bosses should tell workers what has to be done, and workers need to be tough enough to go do it.   It’s like the army.  Of course you’re going to be shot at—stop being a sissy.

But implications go farther than that.  The latest event at the EPA was the nomination of Michael Dourson–whose career has been spent helping businesses fight restrictions on toxic compounds in consumer goods—as lead chemical regulator for the EPA.  We the public need to suck up that pollution stuff and be tough too.  Business needs to be able to do what is necessary to get the job done.  If anyone gets in the way it’s because “our country has become soft.”

It’s a great world where you can order people around, and anyone who doesn’t agree is a traitor or a sissy.  There are people with a lot of money trying to make it happen.   If we don’t watch out they will.

Living with the Dark Side

There has been a lot of talk recently about possible Democratic cooperation with Trump.   There is of course little basis to that yet, but it is interesting how quickly we’ve gone from hoping the Republican Party would save us from Trump to the other way around!  With that as motivation it is worth thinking a little more about the players and issues in this game.

First about the choice of evils:

On one hand we have the Republican Party:

– This has become largely a Koch brothers organization.  Low taxes for the very rich is the only real objective.

– Opposed to all social programs (no accident they couldn’t do healthcare).

– Pro-business, but perhaps not completely nuts on economic issues.

– Can find individuals to work with.

On the other hand we have Trump, with two sometimes contradictory impulses:

  1.  Sees everything as though he were still managing his own businesses

– Cut taxes on businesses and rich people

– No interest in unemployed people or other “losers”

– All regulations are bad; anything of value happens in the private sector

  1.  Sold himself as a “populist” and wants to believe he is delivering on it

– Primary focus is jobs via tax cuts and tariffs.  Not much has actually happened.

– Support for coal miners, abandonment of Paris Agreement, killing DACA

– Not much else yet; AHCA would not have been a winner

The business side of Trump is only subtly different from the Koch brothers agenda, and separating Trump’s two sides is tricky.  His speech on exiting the Paris Agreements was all about the populist side, but everything behind it was driven by Koch brothers people (Pruitt, Pence).  Similarly, AHCA was nominally populist, but really an excuse to cut taxes for rich people.

Thus far Trump hasn’t done much for the populist side, but he keeps talking about it.   That’s actually what has thus far stopped healthcare.  Republicans spent six years repealing ACA with no worries about who would lose coverage–but that became an obvious issue now.  Even though Trump supports AHCA, it’s not so easy for Congress just to laugh off the coverage.

Ideally that is an opening to find Democratic proposals of obvious benefit to Trump’s core constituency that are somehow salable to Trump.  We have to accept these will only get mileage if they are presented as Trump’s initiatives.  If it all fails, that will at least point out the hypocrisy of the populism.

There are some obvious possibilities:

  1. Healthcare

Anything here is conditional on Republicans really giving up on the AHCA nightmare. If that happens Trump will need something.  That could conceivably be whatever comes out of the bipartisan work on ACA, but Trump may want something really different to put his name on.

It should be pointed that this is not just an issue for the Trump core.  Business needs it too, even more than the tax cut if you if you believe Warren Buffett.  A good solution here could incorporate elements of a single payer system into a public option based on Medicare.  For that it is important to realize that the existing Medicare infrastructure is actually administrated by the private sector.

This is a low probability, but you never know–he might bite if it really does save money for business.

  1. Infrastructure

Trump has said he wants to do this, but a pure private sector approach won’t work for poor areas.  Appalachia is not going to benefit without some kind of compromise approach.

  1. Transitional job assistance (retraining and support)

Thus far Trump has put all his eggs in the “growth = jobs” basket.  His target budget killed any assistance programs, including a successful one in Appalachia.   However, it is now clear things are going to take longer than he expected.  If this is viewed as transitional, we may actually be able to help people.

  1. Early childhood education; cost of college

All polls I’ve seen of Trump’s base say that they want something better for their children.  Paul Ryan Republicans have been disastrous for such programs.  These would be clear benefits for the working class.

  1. Tax reform

Trump likes to talk about reducing the current 35% corporate income tax.   However, the average effective rate is more like 24 %, in large part because of special provisions delivered by lobbyists for particular corporations.  A lot of Trump support is from small businesses who aren’t so lucky.   A fair system may not appeal to Paul Ryan, but there is more reason for it to appeal to Trump.   No one is supporting 15%, but 25% with real tax reform would not break the bank and would recall an achievement under Reagan.

  1. Promoting American jobs

Trump has made high tariffs the miracle solution to all problems for everyone.   That’s not true, but it doesn’t mean there is nothing sensible to do.   Trump probably doesn’t know anything else.   We may be able to help.  This is not the Republicans’ area of expertise.

  1. Climate Change

This is so crazy it’s hard to give up, even if it means fighting the Koch brothers directly. There’s both a carrot and a stick involved here, with recent developments for both:

– Harvey is the most recent example of what worsening weather can mean.  As noted in the previous post, no reasonable business faced with such a large potential risk would choose just to ignore it.

– The reality of climate change will create enormous business opportunities—wholesale migration to electric cars is just one.  With current policies we could very well cede all that to the Chinese.  This would not be the only time that a first mover like Tesla would lose out in the end.

In all these areas, in contrast to the Republican healthcare fiasco, Democrats should be able to offer real proposals.  So you never know….

Hurricane Harvey and the Burden of Proof

 

Hurricane Harvey was an extraordinary event.   The rainfall totals and flooding were without precedent even in the hurricane-prone Texas Gulf region.  The New York Times pointed out that fully 40% of the flooded buildings were in areas classified as “of minimal flood hazard.”

Scientists have been very circumspect about what part of this to attribute to climate change.   Michael Mann gave a careful summary of contributing factors, principally sea-level rise and water temperature.  The message is that climate change didn’t cause the hurricane, but did make it worse.  No one can quantify just how much worse, and certainly out-of-control development in Houston contributed to the destructive effects.

However, the fact remains this was an unimaginable storm.   It was out of the range of what anyone thought to see from weather, even from hurricanes.  That is the threat of climate change.  Weather isn’t limited to what we know and understand.  Once we perturb the system, the power of the elements can surpass anything we are used to—that is what’s at stake.  We can’t even guarantee the changes will be gradual.

The evidence behind climate change is considerable and increasing.  A previous post here discussed one particular way of looking at it.  Any reasonable business, faced with a risk of this magnitude, would be doing its best to quantify that risk, so as to take appropriate action.   Businesses that choose to ignore disruptive new technologies or entrants are the ones that disappear—along with their disparaging comments on how the new stuff will never amount to anything.

That’s us.   Coal and oil interests (Koch brothers and their cohorts) are horrified that anyone would even think about keeping their assets in the ground.   With this administration anything that any business doesn’t like is bad–and for climate change we actually have Koch representatives (Scott Pruitt, Mike Pence) running the show.  So climate change doesn’t exist.  Can’t even talk about it.   Come back to me when things are so bad I can’t laugh at you.

What is the burden of proof here?  We are long past the stage of serious concern.   We haven’t reached the stage where people with something to lose are ready to give in, but that’s not going to be until their businesses blow up in a storm.   With climate change you have to act early if you want to prevent a future of weather run amok.   Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just adds up.  If you wait for things to get bad, they will go from bad to continually worse through all the years it takes to get off coal, oil, and gas—and then stay that way for many decades more.

We are at the stage where the appropriate response to risk is action.  Research and the Paris Agreement process are imperatives.  CEO’s of failed companies can always go on to the next one, but with climate change there’s nowhere to go.