It’s Always the Elites and the Foreigners

6778135275_62a99f3616_z Surian Soosay

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.

Learning from Apple

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On the occasion of Apple’s rise to become the first $ 1 T company, the NY Times had a good article with graphic displays showing the size of Apple (as well as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and many others) in the US economy.  There are a number of lessons to be drawn from this.

1. The surprisingly dominant role of Apple—together with the other three just mentioned—shows the importance to this country of technology leadership. That’s what supports our standard of living and always has. Railroads, steel, automobiles were all high-tech in their day.  We cannot pretend that even behind high tariff walls we can build a successful economy out of staying put.

Our challenge is to seize the opportunities and bring everyone along.  One important positive from this story:  much of what these companies sell didn’t exist twenty years ago, which says a lot about opportunities for the future.

2. It’s worth recognizing that (despite all the fuss) China’s rise has been a good thing for Apple and for the US economy generally. The iPhone is a prime example of why trade deficit arguments are wrong.  One of the most profitable American products ever is a loser in the trade deficit, because profits are declared in Ireland for tax purposes!  Are we really going to tell China: “Don’t send us any more of those cheap iPhones that we sell everywhere at 300% markup until you can buy more yourselves”?

For the future, now that China is richer, East and West are actually joined at the hip.  Continued growth has to be collective, so the last thing anyone needs is a trade war.   Sure they tried to copy us—we should do something about that, but the bigger challenge is that they’re good at it.  To be successful we need to play to our strengths:

–  A skilled workforce.  Implies support for education.

–  Equality of opportunity, so that we can use all talents and ideas.  Education is a big part of it, but healthcare and other contributors to family stability are important too.

– To be the place where people with entrepreneurial ideas will want to come realize them.  Google (with an immigrant founder) and Apple (Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant) are convenient and far from exceptional cases.

– Creating a global environment for trade and cooperation where we can be successful.  That means international engagement on rules for all.

3. Apple is also emblematic of the high-ticket corporate welfare we are now practicing. It’s hard to argue that Apple, of all companies, needed a huge tax break on $252 B of repatriated profits plus a current-income tax break, all yielding $100 B of stock buybacks. US companies were doing fine before the new tax plan, and stock buybacks have been the primary result of their tax savings.  In other words, companies have decided the best thing to do with their tax cut money was just to give it back—for the benefit of the rich people who own them.

The other side of that policy is our current inequality of wealth and opportunity.   We have refused to help our population move to the increasingly high-tech future—and created a cast of bogey men to blame for it. We won’t spend money on education, infrastructure, or people—despite the difficulties of transition.  We’ve fought unions and anything that gives workers clout. But it’s the Chinese, or the Europeans, or the liberals, or the immigrants who are to blame.

 

We’re moving toward a worst of possible worlds: a capitalist mal-distribution of wealth combined with socialist top-down economic policy.  We’re fighting tariff wars so senseless that even the Kochs are complaining, because Trump feels empowered to decide which sectors of the economy ought to be winners.

Apple’s success shows what happens when we build to our strengths.  We know how to do that.  We did it for a long while.   But for now we’d rather shut our eyes to the opportunities, and pretend we can bring back the good old 1950’s.

 

The Firebug in Korea and China

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As the NY Times reported, Jimmy Kimmel had a concise summary of Trump’s treatment of immigrant children: “Thank you, Mr. President, for lighting the house on fire and now taking credit for putting the fire out.”

It’s good that someone noticed, but this case is far from unique.  Trump’s firebug behavior happens all the time, and he almost always gets away with it.  As with a real firebug, you can see the permanent damage once the false heroics are over.

Example number 1 is North Korea.  Trump started the fire with his visions of an imminent attack and then whipped it up as he played the out-of-control lunatic preparing a preemptive strike.  There never was any scenario where it made sense for Kim to attack the US, so Trump was in complete control of the perceived nuclear threat.  In a truly virtuoso performance he kept the fire going for many months of ups and downs (no surprise that the meeting was “almost cancelled”).  And the final act did no more than put out his own fire.

The nuclear security of the US is no better or worse than it was at the beginning.   There was no disarmament or even a concrete plan.  All the concessions were on the US side—approval of the regime and the cancelled military maneuvers (a signal of intended withdrawal).  All we’ve got is Trump telling us that Kim is now a buddy—which recalls George W. Bush’s famous comment on Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

The damage is on two fronts.  The first is the ringing endorsement of nuclear proliferation.   The best quote is from Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican) “We support diplomacy and peaceful solutions. But there is no agreement on nuclear disarmament and this all looked more like a big welcome party to the nuclear-armed club.”  The second problem is the signal of intended withdrawal.  China was undoubtedly happy to hear it.

However, firebug behavior is even worse when it substitutes for addressing a real problem.  That’s what seems to be happening with the Chinese trade war.  It looks like North Korea all over again.

We started the trade wars, and they’re in the news every day.  As with the Korean affair, we get a steady diet of Trump’s tough-talking belligerence together with analyst worries about the consequences.  That’s all self-created fire.  Despite the fuss, the real worry is that we’ve been set up for the deal to dowse it. Since the Chinese have already announced willingness to do something, and since Trump needs very little to cry success, there should be no problem getting the kind of PR-oriented agreement we got from Kim.  Market access can be as murky as denuclearization.

There’s another factor too.  China matters to Trump in a way no one should ever forget.  The development of China is the biggest single opportunity for the future of Trump’s businesses.   The $500 M already reported is the tiniest bit of it.  That’s another reason this great deal is going to happen.

And the damage will be monumental.

For starters, the Chinese are not amused and have cut back Chinese investment in the US to almost nothing.  Deal or no deal, there’s no reason to believe they’ll turn that around.  It also says a lot about the level of true cooperation we’re going to get on any deal.

The main point, though, is that we will miss a historic opportunity to get real trade concessions from the Chinese.  By antagonizing our European allies as well as the Chinese, we’re losing half our leverage, and Trump’s need for a deal undercuts negotiations even more.  Following the North Korean model, we’ll take what we’re given.  As the Business Roundtable of CEO’s pointed out from the beginning, there’s a real danger of missing the boat entirely.

We’ll just have to see in October!

 

Instead of Trade Wars

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It tells a lot about our current economic policy to compare it with China’s own plan for their economy.  They want to move up the value chain—to be Apple with the big profits instead of a hardware supplier in a highly-competitive business.  They want to do that across the board in all technologies.  They aren’t afraid of automation’s impacts; they want to push it as hard as they can.  Having transitioned their economy to free market concepts, they are ready to transition their workforce to what it takes to win.  They want to be us!

Except that we don’t want to be us anymore.  We don’t like Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. because those companies don’t hire very many people without technical skills.  We need to set tariffs to bring back the 1950’s, so that those people can have jobs.  And our country is a disaster area until we do that.  So we need trade wars to be great again.

There are a number of problems with that logic.

1.You can’t support our standard of living on non-competitive businesses. To be rich you need to be on top of the value chain.  That involves a number of factors, such as

–  A skilled workforce.  Implies support for education.

–  Equality of opportunity, so that we can use all talents and ideas.  Education is a big part of it, but healthcare and other contributors to family stability are important too.

– To be the place where people with entrepreneurial ideas will want to come realize them.  Google (with an immigrant founder) and Apple (Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant) are convenient examples.

– Creating a global environment for trade and cooperation where we can be successful.  That means international engagement.

If we want to maintain our standard of living, these items are primary and we should be doing everything necessary to be successful.  There is not necessarily just one winner, but you have to be playing the right game.

2.The well-being of the population requires separate attention. The problems today are not because business is hurting.   It isn’t.  The population is not prospering as it should from our financial success, because we (through our government) have chosen NOT to make it happen. We have blocked investment in the population and the public good, and just given more and more of the created wealth to the wealthy.  That’s why we can’t fund education or infrastructure.  The new tax plan is a recent and extreme example.

It says a lot about the political climate that Trump can make a statement like “cash-strapped cities cannot hire enough police officers or fix vile infrastructure” (in rejecting the Paris Climate agreement) and get away with it.  The statement is true, because he and others like him have made it that way.

3.Tariffs are not a miracle solution; they are a tax. Tariffs are designed to raise the price of the products sold internally, so as to protect domestic businesses. That means that non-competitive businesses are supported at the expense of others (businesses or individuals) that use those products (e.g. steel).  The markup is effectively a tax.   You can do some of that, but just as with any other tax you have to look at who gets hurt (e.g. anyone who builds with steel or buys steel products).   The effect is not all that different from using taxes to support public works.  And with public works projects you at least know what you get.   Rather than subsidizing companies and hoping for the best, they pay people for necessary work that the private sector won’t do.  Education and infrastructure are only under-funded because we choose it that way.

It should be noted that protected companies have little incentive to make themselves more competitive on an international scale, so the tax is usually forever.  Also companies that need tariffs to compete are by definition highly cost-sensitive, so wages need to be tightly controlled.  Tariffs—like other presents to businesses—are a way of dealing with exceptional or temporary issues (e.g. real national security or bankruptcy), and they certainly don’t help with automation.  They are not a miracle tool for recreating the 1950’s.

4.Isolating ourselves behind trade barriers is conceding the game to China. Compared to Europe, the US had a much bigger domestic market than any other player, and that helped the US to evolve for financial success.  China already has a bigger domestic economy than we do, and they’ve just gotten started.  They’re putting money into infrastructure and education.  Their AI systems have bigger databases to learn from.  They’ve taken over our leading role for technologies of climate change.

With trade barriers, and xenophobia, and intellectual property paranoia we risk losing our edge.  China’s industrial espionage is a problem that requires continuing attention, but the effects of our new isolation policies may make matters worse.

 

That’s where we’re going.   What’s especially bad about it is that we’re making a mess of what is actually a promising situation.  The rise of China is at this point an opportunity, and we’re missing the boat out of sheer greed and ego.  What has to happen is

1. We need to open the Chinese market. China is now rich enough to be significant as a market.  One way to think of the opportunity is the enormous recent increase in the number of Chinese now traveling abroad.  Those people are our potential market and even the Chinese government has to listen to them.  Further, the US plus Europe represents 36% (18 + 18) of the Chinese output.  With that kind of leverage we don’t need a trade war (as emphasized by the Business Roundtable of corporate CEO’s), we just need to use it for the situation we’re in.  Instead we are stuck with two trade wars, because in Trump’s world we’re fixated on being the only winner—a good way to make sure that everyone loses.

2. We need to do everything possible (including all points noted earlier) to support the economic strength of the country in the current technological world—as opposed to the world of the 1950’s.

3. We need to go back to translating economic success into well-being of the population. It is to our benefit to get everyone on-board with what it takes to be successful.  Furthermore, we need to remember that there is an important place in the economy for public works—and not just roads and bridges.  There’s no shortage of work that needs to be done, and we just gave companies $1.4 T to not do it.  Even Adam Smith knew that not every job that needs doing will be magically performed by the private sector.

It’s a simple as that.  Most wars are fought out of stupidity.  Including trade wars.

 

The Trade Wars Are a War on Trade

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The impending trade war with China has already generated the drumbeat of preparations for a real war:  “cheating”, “usurping”, “impoverishing”, “existential threat”, …  Of course with Trump you never know what’s just posturing, given how quickly the North Korean “rocket man” became “very honorable”. So there’s hope that the Chinese trade war will somehow wind down.

But even if it does, we have to recognize there is now a real, ongoing threat to international prosperity.  Trump is attacking the system of fair trade that underlies the world’s rise in prosperity since the second world war.  His notion of sovereignty means he refuses to acknowledge any limits (international or constitutional) on his ability to use trade as a weapon.  That is new, and if it wins we all lose.

 

We start by quoting a position from the Business Roundtable of corporate CEO’s on the trade negotiations with China.

“During negotiations with China, the Administration’s objective should be to secure lasting economic reforms that will curtail China’s unfair trade practices and allow U.S. businesses to compete on a level playing field. Negotiations that focus on temporarily reducing the trade deficit would make this a wasted effort. Working in coordination with our allies, the U.S. should set deadlines on those economic reforms and outline the consequences China would face if reforms aren’t made. This approach will provide an opportunity for the Chinese to produce results and for the Administration to protect the interests of U.S. businesses and workers effectively.”

The important thing about the quote is that it sees the problems with China within the context of internationally-defined fair trade.  And it emphasizes the importance of working with our allies to make the system successful.   That’s as opposed to “reducing the trade deficit”—which seems to be at the top of the administration’s list both for China and for Mexico, Canada, and others.  (This is despite the fact that our balance of payments deficit with China has decreased greatly from peak, is not a financial problem, and is not the reason for the stresses on the American middle class.)

It is important to recognize that regulating deficits is worse than “wasted effort”; it actually subverts the real objectives of fair trade.  Not only does it make China responsible for something it doesn’t completely control (we’re the ones pumping up the federal deficit), it is a rule we would never accept for ourselves.  The whole idea of fair trade is that it should be a system of known rules by which everyone can play; here we’re just imposing whatever we think we can get away with.

The quote is of course coming from businessmen, but the issue is one for everyone.  The downsides of international trade exist, but most cases the problems are of our own doing.  Further the most effective way to impose standards for labor and environmental issues is to work through the definition of fair trade.

We have already sinned against WTO fair trade once, by invoking “national security” as a blanket excuse for unilateral tariffs.   We are going beyond that here by setting rules for others we have no intention ever to obey.

 

The second example is the administration’s other major issue in the Chinese negotiations: “Made in China 2025”.

For high-tech, China today is primarily building products for western companies.  Generally most of the intellectual content and profit goes to the parent company (e.g. Apple) as the top of the heap.  Unsurprisingly, China would like to move up the value chain to get more of the benefit.  Also, China today sources most of the IC chips in the products it builds from other countries—a fact that China views as a risk to its success.  Made in China is the plan to move up.

Made in China 2025 covers just about any technical field you can think of (except AI, with its own plan), and the government expects to spend money to make progress happen.  As an idea, this isn’t terribly different from what is going on in many other countries (see here for a summary of national spending on AI).  But the Trump administration has decided that the whole idea of Chinese government involvement in technological advancement is suspect.

While Mnuchin and others use the language of fair trade to attack the Chinese plan, those attacks have lacked much specificity.  And in fact if the administration is worried about abuse, they could take the whole affair to the WTO.  What makes the case even weirder is that, as we know, the Trump administration has proposed severe cuts in US government funding for research in essentially all fields, claiming the private sector does it better.

So one has to conclude that what is going on is trade warfare pure and simple.  The Trump people (with their zero-sum view of the world) are afraid the Chinese might catch up, and their goals is to throw as many nails on the road as possible to slow them down.  That’s what passes for economic policy.

This is arrogant foolhardiness of the sort the world hasn’t seen since the geniuses of the Iraq war.  As many have pointed out, the companies most hurt will be American.  And the message for the rest of the world is clear.  The US, with quite a lot to gain, has decided it doesn’t need free trade.

The end here, as in our last piece on trade, is constitutional.  It becomes more urgent each time.

Normally, without the seldom-used national security ploy, tariffs are a matter for Congress.  When Trump got away with it on the aluminum and steel tariffs it was a scary first step.  We’re now fighting a whole trade war with China, and no one is questioning that it can be done purely by fiat.

So we no longer need to argue about whether Trump will or won’t try to make himself a dictator.  Unless something happens, he is already in position to wreck our economy all by himself.

Tesla and Ice

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This is a short note on a couple of issues related only in that they say something relevant about the future we should be planning for.

The first relates to Tesla and its production difficulties with the new, lower-priced model 3.  The highly-automated production of the model 3 is well-behind schedule, to the point where it is a big hit to the cash flow of the company.  We mention it here, though, because the delay is an indication that mass production of electric cars is something fundamentally new.

An electric car is a much simpler machine than an ordinary, gas-powered vehicle.  In principle the construction should be both cheaper and easier to automate.  Current production of Teslas is intrinsically a low-volume operation.  The model 3 will be the first indication of what newly-imagined electric car production is like.

I don’t know if we’re in for a shock or not (this is after all a first go at it), but this could be another big change to conventional middle-class employment.  And there will be follow-on effects for gas stations, and especially maintenance and repair.  This is another of many indications that broad, technology-based disruption of jobs is going to happen.

 

The other story is about the commissioning of a new class of Russian icebreaker—targeted at clearing northern ship lanes freed up by the retreat of polar ice with global warming.  The phenomenon is already clear, although the amount of traffic is still small.  The Russians are preparing for the opportunity with multiple classes of new machines planned for release up to 2025.  The Chinese have announced cooperation with the objective of reducing shipping times to Europe by a third.

The US is of course uninterested in consequences of climate change.  The only Coast Guard ice breaker is 40 years old, and they have a hard time getting authorization to get a new one.  The Bering strait, however, could be a shipping lane.

This is a very small example, but climate change affects many things, and as a country we’re trying to avoid finding out about them.

 

The current federal budget is put together for a world where the private sector will take care of everything.  That has always been a fantasy—the efficiency of the private sector comes in large part from its ability to ignore everything not relevant to immediate financial success.  It is particularly false for a world undergoing fundamental change.  We either recognize it and help people through it, or we fall behind and revert to the nightmares of the nineteenth century.

The Great Trump Korean Trade Deal

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As usual we need to put two and two together for these announcements.

  1. The biggest, highest profile provision of the deal is the raised limit on the number of cars each American manufacturer can sell in Korea. However, no American manufacturer has come close to the current limit.
  2. American auto manufacturers have recently made clear how interested they are in foreign markets. The industry’s lobbying group—the  Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers—recently released a report full of fabricated challenges to the idea of climate change in support of a regulatory request for relief from new auto emissions and fuel economy standards.

In other words they’d rather come up with the next SUV—a product niche initially unique to the US—than fight it out in the more competitive international market where such standards hold sway.  (Even the Korean deal actually had to include an exemption from such rules, or we couldn’t sell anything!)

So we have theater instead of economic policy.  Too bad we can’t just export media events.