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.

This is it!

This is it!  Finally it’s here.

After six years of holding the country hostage (no question now about the meaning of “party of no”)—

After thousands of Fox News stories full of arrogant and nasty liberals—

After untold campaign contributions—

We finally have what we’ve waited for.   The dearly-bought gift—the tax cut, our tax cut has arrived in Congress!

 

Think about what we’ve done to get here.  First some of the ground work:

– Republican Supreme Court justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch.

– Citizen’s United—liberating our money as protected free speech.

– The unprecedented Koch organization—funded by billionaires and with a staff of 1600 and billion-dollar budgets to control state and federal legislatures.

– A full complement of Koch people (e.g. Pence, Pruitt) in Trump’s government.

 

Then our messaging with Fox News and Rupert Murdoch leading the way:

– First one fabulous job of divide and conquer.  We’ve made “liberals” even more detestable than “welfare queens”.   What a line we’ve got: “They’re laughing at us and think we’re stupid.   They’re stealing our jobs and our money.  Can’t believe a word they say.  Our team will bash their heads in when we win!”  We’ve even got real liberals apologizing for our stereotypes!  And then there’s racism…

– Next the subtler part—governments can do nothing, everything they offer is either worthless or for someone else.  There’s quite a list of things governments can’t do:  education, social services, medical care, even police (we just need “good people with guns”).  Funny thing about all those wastes of taxpayer money—they’re things we’re already doing for ourselves.

– Finally a bit of warm and fuzzy nonsense.  Jobs are gifts from corporations and rich people.   Make us rich and we’ll take care of you!

Sounds like a tax plan.

 

And look now at what we’ve got.  Let’s count the tax cuts:

– Estate tax.  Only helps families with at least $10 M to pass on.  Worth $1 B for Trump himself.   Just for us.

– Tax rates.  The top bracket is down to 35%, but that’s just the beginning.  We’ll really get 25% with the new passthrough loophole (our lawyers will certainly take care of any fine print).

– Corporate tax rates.   We’ve got the clout to get most of this as dividends or stock repurchases.

– Deficits.   That’s a particularly good one.   Those nonsensical growth predictions are just one more piece of the pie.  The deficits will mean cuts in services and correspondingly lower taxes going forward!

It’s actually marvelous how this has worked out.   We’ve got a tax cut before there’s even a budget!  Exactly the way the world should be.

 

Where is all this going?  Funny you should ask.   There’s an article in today’s NY Times talking about it.   It seems Mexico is actually doing something right.   They’re not wasting money on parasites.   People like us live in walled communities with their own security and service.  Some of it they pay for, and the state does the rest. And they pay practically no taxes!  The world as God created it!

 

The tax cut has come.   We are saved.

Private Sector Fantasies

This note is about a subject with perhaps more deliberately-sown confusion than any other:  the role of government in a market economy.

We start with the saint of free markets Adam Smith.   Adam Smith had no delusions that the free market system would somehow manage itself.   He saw three roles for government in a market economy:  defense, justice, and education.  Further he understood that the private sector and the free market were not the same thing—one of the roles of justice was to prevent the private sector from creating monopolies and thus perverting the free market.  In other words even as an ideal, the free market was neither self -policing (it needed to be protected against its own tendency to create abuses) nor self-sustaining (it needed government to create the population of educated workers).

With that as introduction, we want to talk more about the relations of business and government.  There are three sections.  The first two expand on policing and sustaining of the free market, as just discussed.  The third talks about scope—what objectives for society are in or out of scope for the free market. The Trump administration has positioned itself as the defender of free markets against government.  Instead they are defenders of something rather different, with real dangers as a result.

 

Policing the free market

Monopolies are bad.  they raise prices and stifle progress.  They are also by many measures growing in power.  But they are not the only area where the free market needs to be protected from itself.   For example, lack of business transparency perverts the capital markets, so the SEC plays a crucial role.

A more complicated but equally crucial role is regulation of the boom and bust cycles (with bank failures and human misery) that used to be endemic to capitalism.  Government has two responsibilities for controlling those cycles:

  1. It needs to act “countercyclically”. Despite the jargon term, this is so basic as to be biblical—save in good times to prepare for bad. In a recession the government is the only party able to stop the spiral of low sales -> layoffs -> even lower sales-> even more layoffs.  It does that by injecting money into the economy to stabilize sales.  But in a recession, tax revenues are down, and the money has to come from somewhere–preferably savings but if necessary debt.  In 2008 George W. Bush had just fought an off-budget 2 trillion-dollar war, so the cupboard was bare.  Republicans screamed about increasing the deficit, even proposing constitutional amendments for balanced budgets.  Their line “real people tighten their belts when they have to” was a deliberate misrepresentation.  Real people save for bad times; otherwise they have to borrow to put food on the table.
  2. Government needs to recognize and control the excesses that can creep in to cause havoc in the business cycle. While many factors contributed to the 2008 crash, the most spectacularly deadly was the perversion of the banking system caused by mortgage-backed securities. In the giddiness of deregulation no one was looking.  The aftermath produced the Dodd-Frank legislation as an antidote.

Finally, as a last example, there are categories of risk where you can’t count on the business decision-making process to do the job.  Low-probability/high costs events (plane crashes, oil rig blow-outs) should in theory be prevented by rational decision-making, but in practice it’s hard to refrain from increasing profits by ignoring something that “really isn’t going to happen”.  So there is a role for government there too—protecting both the public and the businesses.

Current status:

– The administration’s anti-trust position remains to be seen.  Trump campaigned against mergers, but appointed an industry-representing trust lawyer to head the anti-trust division.

– There seems to be no recognition of business cycle issues.  Trump’s tax plan runs a big deficit to stimulate an economy close to full employment.  This runs the risk of repeating 2008 with an even worse debt position to fight it.  He also wants to repeal Dodd-Frank and says he won’t enforce it now.

– The general rule is that any regulation opposed by any business is bad.

=>  There is no serious recognition that the financial system needs policing.  Trump runs the show based on what he has wanted to see for his own businesses.  This is a blind dash into another 2008 or worse.

 

Sustaining the free market

Adam Smith pointed out the need for government to supply a suitably-trained workforce.   In the eighteenth century that meant simply literacy.   The definition of suitably-trained has changed over time.  By 1940 a then astounding 50% of American students finished high school.  In that era no other country approached that level of broad education support.   Then the GI bill made college possible for veterans, and public colleges expanded widely throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.  This coincided with unquestioned American economic dominance.  An educated workforce (at all levels) remains a critical national requirement.

You can take that one step farther.  Equality of opportunity is usually discussed in terms of social effects, but there is a corresponding benefit to the free market.   Business and the market benefit when all persons are able to achieve up to their capabilities.  The United States used to lead the world in upward mobility, but with rising inequality it now ranks behind most developed countries.

There is one more government role that fits here as well, namely research.  Government support of research produces people to be hired by cutting-edge businesses, and also supports the creation of new businesses to exploit the progress of science and technology.

Current status:

– For college, the student debt crisis speaks for itself.  A whole generation of students can’t imagine when they will be able to get out of debt.  This is compounded by De Vos’ support of shady lenders and weakening of controls on fraudulent educational institutions.

– For K- 12 education, states have retreated in funding, and De Vos is proposing a voucher system that will abandon the broader population.  Vouchers will be fixed in dollar value, to be augmented by surcharges at the now-privatized schools.   If you want a good education you pay for it; if you can’t, there is no guarantee of what you get.  This is institutionalized separate and unequal.

– Trump’s budget essentially abandons the government’s role in research, and his appointees have attempted to minimize the role of science.

=> There is surprisingly little recognition that government has an important role here at all–except to privatize it!

 

Scope of the free market

Adam Smith felt that the private sector could not be trusted even to defend free markets.  So it is not surprising that there are other aspects of society that need defending as well.

We give a few examples:

– Well-being of workers.   Smith describes effects of supply and demand on workers, and he even points out that adequately-paid workers may be more productive, but he makes no claim of utopia from the free market.   In fact in Smith’s description, workers’ welfare depends on a market for labor in which individuals have little bargaining power.

– Resources and the environment

Enterprises will use the environment for their own benefit, unless there are rules to the contrary.

– Infrastructure

Public resources such as roads, bridge, airports, internet, etc. should be built and maintained as needed by everyone.

Current status:

– Trump has pushed to limit OSHA workrules, opposes unions, and has no plans to raise the minimum wage.

– The EPA is being severely cut and redirected to helping businesses.

– The stated approach to infrastructure is via private investment, which will go where the money is.

=> There is no recognition that areas such as these can be out of scope for the private sector.  Instead there is a blind belief that growth solves everything.

 

From this summary it should be clear how far we are from free market economics.

The current national policy is that the private sector just needs to be encouraged to go do its thing.   We don’t have to care about policing its risk, we can let it take care of education and research, and nothing other than its success is needed to solve every other problem in society.  Just make sure it’s flush with cash and let it go.

That was the history of the nineteenth century, and for vast part of the population it was no picnic.  And it is worth remembering that 1929 really did happen.

Even thinking of the more recent past there’s an eerie familiarity about our situation.  We have a supremely confident lunatic fringe with the power to run amok.  The last lunatic fringe to take control of our government (remember the neocons?) gave us the Iraq war—which destabilized the Middle East and bankrupted the country—and the crash of 2008.

This time it could well be worse.

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.

No Plan

The latest Republican healthcare proposal is such a horror, it is hard to think about anything else.   There is in fact no plan—just a scheme that gives money to the states for them to figure it out.  It is underfunded (the non-participants in Medicaid expansion are now covered too but with overall less money); there is no longer any guarantee of a minimal level of coverage (including for pre-existing conditions); and in the longer term it shuts the door on Medicaid entirely.  It increases the complexity and uncertainty of the system to such a degree even the insurance companies are upset—and it’s not just their problem.   We’re talking about small, more expensive risk pools and significantly greater administrative costs.

Since this level of incompetence is just about unthinkable, one asks how anyone could come up with it.  There are three immediate answers—all bad:  Trump’s pledge to get rid of Obamacare, the proposal’s massive shift of funding from blue states to red, and the simple fact that this is the last chance to pass something before the special 50-vote rule expires September 30.

Let’s focus on the first point—what did Trump voters think they were voting for?   They were told he had a much better, cheaper plan.   After all he was a businessman and great negotiator.  Since the current proposal is no plan, we now know beyond all doubt that what Trump sold was a lie.  That fact by itself is an under-reported outrage.

We need to explore the scope of that outrage.

It’s not just Trump.  The Republicans have been repealing Obamacare for six years.   They clearly never had a plan either, just lies.

It’s not just healthcare. What do Republicans want for the country?

That actually has straightforward answer.  It is slightly different for Trump and the Congress:

– For Trump it is simple:  “What’s good for me is what’s good for the country.”

– For the Congress the target extends only a little wider:  reduce taxes for very rich people.   Based on contributions this is the Koch brothers’ Congress.   The Koch’s political organization (not just their own money) employs 1600 people and has a larger budget than the Republican party itself.  They are the dog wagging the Republican party tail.

What’s the plan for jobs—reduce on taxes on the rich (with no serious look at whether that addresses real problems)

What’s the plan for infrastructure—reduce taxes on the rich (private financing takes infrastructure off the budget and assures spending will go where the money is)

What’s the plan for healthcare—reduce taxes on the rich here too (defund medicaid & push other care to the states with declining funding)

That is the plan.  There is no plan.  Just lies.

Limits of Charlottesville

However depressing Trump’s Charlottesville comments may be, we should not delude ourselves into believing that Trump will be defeated by any matter of principle.

The current situation recalls the uproar over the video with Trump’s lewd comments on women—an uproar that dissipated to nothing.  It remains to be seen how long the new level of outrage will last.  We can’t dismiss Nazism, but we won’t win on outrage either.  We will get nothing but backlash if perceived bread-and-butter issues are left unaddressed.

The main issue has to be the economy–jobs and prosperity–where many myths are still widely-believed.

Too many people believe that giving businesses everything they want is the path to prosperity.  That is historically false and will come back to haunt us:

– The prosperity of this country cannot possibly be based on protected industries making stuff others make cheaper.   Tariffs are no silver bullet to bring back the days of good, union jobs.

– Education and research are primary engines of prosperity.   They are what supports our standard of living and cannot be treated as money stolen from the private sector.

– We are living in a period of extraordinary technology change.   That is altering the nature of work and affects increasingly many people.  It creates twin problems—preparing our population for success and helping people left behind.   Neither will be magically provided by the private sector alone.

Trump’s policies will defeat us as a country and impoverish us as individuals.  One entry got it right in the NY Times’ list of write-in slogans for the Democratic Party:

“Justice, Compassion and Jobs!”

It speaks to the core values and, in the end, it’s the economy, stupid!

(Wynn Schwartz, Boston)

The Phony Issue of Globalization

Globalization as a phenomenon is irrefutable.   The world continues to become more interconnected by any measure you can think of.  National economies are so interdependent that it’s hard to untangle the threads.

Globalization as an issue is something else.   There is a long list of globalization problems:  it picks winners and losers economically, it makes some people feel like the country has changed out from under them, it destroys the sense of community.

The trouble is that globalization is responsible for essentially none of that.  Our real problem with globalization is how much we can blame on it.

Let’s start with jobs.  We begin with a frequently-cited quote from Harvard economist Lawrence Katz on automation versus globalization for jobs:  “Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important–it’s not even close.”  That gets us part of the way there.  It’s not primarily globalization.  As many studies have shown, Trump’s core supporters lost their good union jobs for many reasons, not just globalization.

However, that’s history.   What matters is now, and the jobs story gets more lopsided all the time.  For today, one can say unequivocally that no set of tariffs is going to bring back those good union jobs.   And the future looks worse.  Self-driving cars and machine translation are key indicators of where things are going.   One article about Artificial Intelligence puts it this way: “the A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better …  they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.”

There is a growing jobs problem, and it’s not globalization.  We’re moving ever faster into a two-tiered society with participants and (increasingly many) non-participants in the technology-driven economy.  But we would rather futz around with NAFTA, because apparently that plays better.   By continuing to blame globalization as the jobs problem, we end up doing crazy things.  We’re actually skimping on education and research!  One thing we really can do for Trump’s core is make sure their kids have futures, but we’re not even trying.  Instead we’ve got a budget plan that vilifies the unemployed without any notion of what jobs are waiting for them.

That’s jobs.  What about alienation, feeling the country has been overrun with immigrants?  Is that really globalization?  There’s a key to that one too:  no one is talking about Swedes and Germans.   It’s Mexicans and—whether we want to admit it or not—blacks.  Just about any study of the last election talks about the importance of race.   “Immigrants” is a keyword; race was always part of it.  Violence after the election was immediately directed against blacks.  With Obama as President, the Republican party has been deliberately stoking racism for years.  Trump just whipped it up into something more obviously ugly.  Globalization is a smoke screen for deliberately-provoked racial hatred.

How about community?  We now have a whole media wing promoting the idea that cultures can’t mix:  Trump’s Mexican rapists and Bannon’s calls for holy war are just starters.  We’ve always had that sort of stuff in this country (Jews, Italians, Irish…), but we’ve always emerged better for what had been vilified.  Human beings have a built-in fear of strangers.   As they get to know each other they tend to get along.   But they can be whipped into a frenzy by demagogues who choose to exploit that fear for their own advantage.  Trump is certainly not the first to ride scapegoating to power.   Globalization is a convenient bogey man.

So globalization itself is not the issue.  What we really have in this country (and elsewhere)  is demagoguery–self-serving lies under the flag of fighting globalization. And the lies are damaging, as they undermine both national competitiveness and individual well-being.

There are no simple solutions, particularly now that so much has entered the legitimized mainstream.  But there is still a good use for “globalization”–the next time you hear that that disadvantaged workers need the government to fight globalization, you know exactly who’s looking to win!

Trump and Jobs

No one should ever underestimate Trump’s skill as a salesman. He has made a lot of money with that talent, but it’s hard to imagine anything that ranks with his sale of the promised land of jobs.

Start with the basics:
– Trump is opposed to unions and any increase in the historically low minimum wage .
– In his own enterprises he has used foreign manufacture and imported foreign employees on a continuing basis
– His treatment of contractors and investors in his huge bankruptcies was both devastating and deliberate.
– He is opposed to regulatory protections for working conditions.
– In his budget he has proposed a complete dismantling of the safety net to protect people who lose jobs.

All told one can say without exaggeration that Trump’s attitude toward workers is that government should do everything possible to weaken their position in dealing with management.

The promised land of new jobs is supposed to counterbalance that.

What stands behind all those jobs? Only two items:

– Removing any regulation that any businessman doesn’t like.
– Cutting taxes on corporations and rich people.

The only thing that is guaranteed about those items is that they will make people like Trump richer. The connection to jobs is so problematical that it is hard to believe that he ever cared enough to look at it:

– Reducing personal income taxes on rich people has a long track record of failure to produce growth.
– Deficit-based stimulation at this stage of the business cycle is at best risky. The most likely scenario is inflation leading to job losses, but it even invites another 2008-like crash.
– Neither corporate tax cuts nor deregulation has a history of increasing jobs. Corporate tax cuts tend to get passed through to investors.  Level of regulation is not necessarily even correlated with jobs.   One can even argue that states with more regulation perform better economically.

– We are moving ever faster into a two-tiered society with participants and (increasingly many) non-participants in the technology-driven economy–none of which is addressed or even recognized in this picture.

 

Trump’s jobs proposal isn’t one–it’s just a shopping list of what’s good for him.

Trump is the same Trump he has always been: lead salesman for his businesses.  The most you can say is that he probably believes that what’s good for himself is good for everyone–but that’s as far as the thought goes.

Six bankruptcies (among other things) have shown the consequences of believing him.

But he’s sure a hell of a salesman!

This is the Richest Country in the World

The title of this piece is a fact.  By itself the statement is not controversial, but it shows the deliberate misinformation we’re surrounded by every day.

There is a good example from Trump’s speech exiting the Paris Accords: “cash-strapped cities cannot hire enough police officers or fix vile infrastructure.”  The statement is perfectly true, and there is a reason why that statement is true for the richest country in the world.   It is that Trump himself and people like him have taken more and more of that wealth for themselves–and out of the public sector.

For the past six years the Republican Congress has blocked essentially all new expenditures for the public good.  And Trump’s proposed budget will make that a full-scale assault on states and cities.   He is both reducing current aid and also pushing more and more responsibilities for services their way.  The story also includes the Republican-led scandal of education, where reduced state government support for education since the 2008 crisis has contributed to a whole generation trapped with student debt.  (In Trump’s budget the coming DeVos nightmare is its own story–since there is no guarantee what will be paid for by voucher, good education will be sold to the bidder in the brave new world.)

This is the richest country in the world, but the fact that many people don’t feel it doesn’t mean there is no money.   The money has been taken out of the system for the benefit of people like Trump, and they are now proposing to take more of it.

Trump says he is preparing an economic nirvana, where all those who are currently left out will be saved.  More on that pipe dream in a minute, but focus on the explicit reality first:  upper-income tax payers like Trump will make trillions of dollars on it.   There is even a brand new big “pass-through” loophole for rich tax payers like Trump personally. There will be scant benefit for the middle class, and even that may be eaten up by the added costs imposed on the states.  The poor will be slammed on all fronts.

As to the nirvana:

  1. The economy is close to full employment in the sense that good new jobs require specific skills, so most of the current unemployment is structural—due to skill mismatch, not the level of economic activity.  Job training programs are actually cut in Trump’s budget.
  2. Few economists believe that anything close to Trump’s proclaimed 3-4 % growth is going to happen, or even that such growth would prevent a deficit. The deficit itself is inflationary, and would ultimately cause job loss rather than growth.
  3. Stimulus deficit spending at this stage in the business cycle is so foolhardy, that no previous President–Republican or Democrat–has ever wanted to do it. At the very least it invites inflation and the possibility of another 2008-like crash.

This is not Trump’s “genius” at work, it is something far simpler.   Trump believes what he is says, because he is still Trump the salesman looking out for himself:  taxes are bad, regulations are bad, unions are bad, minimum wage is bad, research is a waste.  As a salesman Trump has always had a particular gift for believing what he sells.   And what he is selling is simple:

“What’s good for me is what’s good for the country.   Stop bothering my companies and cut my taxes and everything will be just great. “

There is nothing else here but that.

As the saying goes: if you want to know what is going on–follow the money.  And it is clear where it is going in the richest country in the world.

Sacrifices to the Gods of Jobs

Since the election there has been a continuing focus on the “Trump core voters”–people whose standard of living plummeted after the loss of good unionized industrial jobs.

During the campaign Trump’s story was that the jobs were lost to unfair trade practices, and that the cures were tariffs, deportations of immigrants, and abandoning NAFTA.  In the months since Trump assumed office, his emphasis has shifted.  China is our friend, the NAFTA discussion is on hold, and all the stress is on prosperity to be created through a huge tax cut for the rich.

Few economists believed the first story (most put the emphasis on technology change), and even fewer believe the second.  All of that, however, makes it even more important to understand what is actually going on.

The message here is that the problems of the “Trump core” are not isolated, but emblematic of fundamental trends in American society.   And Trump’s currently-proposed cure is more a problem than a solution.

 

We begin by referencing a recent article which points out how the problems of the Trump core voters fit squarely within the context of the decline of the middle class.

There is in fact no mystery about what is going on.  US society has been changing in fundamental ways, and those changes include a number of separate trends:

– The Trump core voter issues

– Underfunding of education, including a huge rise in the cost of college

– Infrastructure decay

– Decline of the middle class

– Vast increase in wealth inequality by any measure

– The Tea Party and Donald Trump

Briefly stated, the country is losing the public infrastructure necessary to maintain the middle class.  That trend is fundamentally tied up with wealth inequality, and in fact there is feedback that is accelerating both the inequality and the middle class decline.  Part of the problem is familiar “trickle-down economics”—the historically false idea that giveaways to the rich produce jobs—but the current version of it has reached a stage where it threatens the country as we know it.

To see that we go through the items one-by-one:

  1. Trump core voter issues

In any analysis of the problems of Trump core voters, the interrelated factors of globalization, technological change, and deunionization all play a role.  Industry world-wide (even in China) has moved up the technology curve, and good jobs demand more education and skills.  Workers without such skills are at the bottom of the heap:  competing for scarce jobs with no leverage and without union support.

This is not the first time that the US has experienced such transitions—think of textiles in New England.   Such dislocations are hard and can take time.  It is the role of government to provide support, retraining, and incentives to reestablish the economic base.  Education in particular is critical, both for the job-seekers and perhaps even more for their children.  In the current environment there has been little money or appetite for any of that.

The Trump budget in fact cuts essentially all such support in favor of nothing but more “tickle-down”—cut taxes on the rich and everything will be great.

  1. Education

The problems with education, however, go beyond the Trump core voters.   In the current economy (as just discussed), education is the key for most people to join the middle class, and we are making that harder than ever.   Many states have cut back on education budgets across the board.

The most obvious example, though, is the huge rise in college debt coming from rising tuition even at public colleges.  Even though college is for most people a prerequisite to a good job, we are making that a tough gate to get through.  As a society we have effectively abandoned our commitment to free public education.  And if there is any single thing that is important in “making our country great” it is education.

  1. Infrastructure decay

Like education, this is an example of refusal to fund the public good.  In the Presidential campaign both Trump and Clinton raised infrastructure repairs as an issue.  Further, since infrastructure work is personnel intensive, it can be a means of dealing with the transition issues discussed for Trump voters.  However, really doing something means significant money must be spent.

Despite Trump’s pronouncements on the role of the private sector, there is no way to make this happen without government spending, and it remains to be seen if there is a will to do it.   (Trump’s budget has seed money for privatizing bridges and airports, but the program is far from clear.  There’s no guaranteeing what will get done, and the opportunities for corruption are very large.)

Moreover for the middle class, infrastructure isn’t limited to just roads and airports.   There are many factors, including such basics as healthcare and childcare, which have a role in the viability of the middle class.  There is currently little support for any of it.

  1. Decline of the middle class

The previous points described some of what has been lost for the middle class.   And statistics show the result.   It has become harder to get in (and even those that do can have crushing debt), and harder to stay in if anything goes wrong.  Far fewer people now think their children will make out better than they did.

We also have examples of pending Trump administration programs that will make matters worse.  Healthcare, judging from the House bill, will become more uncertain and expensive, particularly if you are elderly or have pre-existing conditions.   For education, DeVos has already made things worse for student debt, and her voucher program will deliver for a payoff for people who already have kids in private schools, but has no commitment to delivering quality education for all.

All told pretty grim.

  1. The role of inequality

To start with, it is important to recognize how drastically things have changed in this country—for example from 1980 to 2014 incomes of the top 1% have tripled in real dollars, but incomes of the bottom 50% were unchanged.  And the effect actually was more pronounced the higher up the ladder you go–the increases for the top .01% were significantly greater than for the top 1 %.

As usual more money buys more power, and we’ve now reached the stage where even individuals (super-rich ones like the Koch brothers, Robert Mercer, Betsy DeVos) can dictate public policy.   That effect was enhanced by the Citizen’s United decision, since they now have unlimited ability to affect elections.   Overall–more money drives legislation favorable to the elites, which in turn makes them ever richer and more powerful.

There have been two primary parts to their message:

– Opposition to government social welfare programs of any kind (“governments can do nothing”).

– Pressure for tax cuts for the wealthy (“we are the job creators”).

The first attacks low and middle class programs (even education)—which they don’t want to pay for.  (Robert Mercer, one of Trump’s primary backers, famously said that people on welfare are worth less than cats.)  The second drives increasing inequality—more and more wealth and power for the elites (i.e. Trump and his cabinet).

  1. The Tea Party and Donald Trump

Ordinary “trickle-down” economics has always offered a historically false promise—cut taxes on the rich, and things will get better.

With the Tea Party and Trump we seem to have gone one step further.  Great sums of money have gone into promoting the idea that since jobs come from the private sector, the only way to have jobs is to let the private sector do everything it wants.  Jobs are gifts from the “job creators.”  Getting more jobs means doing everything possible to keep the job creators happy.  Government can only get in the way.  The recipe for more jobs is tax cuts for the job creators (corporate and personal) and elimination of programs that might disturb them (or take money they might otherwise get).  We must keep up the sacrifices to the jealous gods of jobs.

That message runs counter to both logic and history.  Corporations don’t hire people because they are happy or grateful; that would be incompetent and bad business.   They hire based on growth opportunities and in locations that suit their purposes.  And government has a lot to say about conditions for growth and how people will actually benefit.  It is precisely the elements of the public good—education, infrastructure, research—that create the environment that makes for our success, both as a country and as individuals.  The economic successes of Silicon Valley and the current centers of biotech didn’t come from their being the cheapest and most docile places to do business. Historically, overall economic performance under Democratic administrations has actually been significantly better than for Republican ones by essentially all measures.

Nonetheless, the simplicity of the message has led to its overwhelming success.   It has become so powerful, that when it fails we only get more of the same.   We have now been through several cycles of:

Tax cuts for the rich and reduced funding for social programs =>

Reduced support for middle class people to succeed =>

Fewer people in good jobs =>

Even more tax cuts for the rich and cuts to programs

That is basically how we got from the Tea Party to Trump.  The Republican Congress tried desperately to repeal the Obamacare surtax and blocked all attempts at social welfare legislation—including initiatives for early childhood education and community college support.  That paid off with Trump elected on a spurious jobs platform that has translated in the budget to extreme tax cuts for the rich and even more drastic cuts to all services.

The “jobs are gifts” fiction has now reached the level of religious fervor:  we must be ready to sacrifice all (environment, education, minimum wage) to the corporate “job creators” so that they will grant us jobs.  Trump’s budget effectively does just that.

“jobs are gifts” is like quicksand—you can’t get out.  We can’t stop the decline of the middle class, because if we stop giving to the rich they’ll take our jobs away.  So we continue to spiral down to a two-tiered society with a growing gap and little in between.

As always with “trickle-down” economics, the sacrifices are real but the promises are not.  There is no cornucopia of good jobs coming to the “Trump voters” or others looking for middle class income without education or skills.  Nothing in Trump’s budget will fix mismatches of jobs and skills, but the tax cuts are real money.

In fact with the specifics of Trump’s tax plan, things look decidedly bleak.  With huge deficit spending at this stage of the business cycle we are inviting another crash on the order of 2008 or worse.  We survived 2008, because the people in charge knew enough to act countercyclically.   We won’t have that luxury this time, which is exactly what happened in 1929.

 

On the other hand if we can overcome the “jobs are gifts” fiction, the world suddenly looks brighter.  That’s not to say all the problems will go away, but at least we can systematically make things better.

First of all, it isn’t that hard to fix things.  The country is prosperous, but the prosperity has been accompanied by dramatic inequality.  We need to broaden prosperity by broadening opportunity, similar to what happened in the fifties and sixties.  History has shown that contrary to the “gift” fiction, broadened prosperity actually helps rather than hinders growth.  Education, research, and even (with global warming) the maligned EPA are keys to growth.

Second, despite all the penny-pinching gloom, we do have the resources to make it happen.  The straitjacket we’re in now is of our own doing.   There are many examples.

Republicans like to talk about the impending entitlements disaster:  Social Security and Medicare.  In fact neither is unmanageable.

Social Security is self-funded, but it is currently paying a portion of benefits out of past savings, and in 2034 that pot of past savings will be exhausted.   However what happens in 2034 has been much exaggerated–current funding would continue to pay 3/4 of benefits for the foreseeable future.   (“Social Security is bankrupt” is another trick of language, falsely implying there will be nothing after 2034.)  For the remaining 1/4, one first notes that the Social Security payroll tax has become increasingly regressive–the tax is paid only on the first $118,00 of income, and with the growing wage inequality a higher and higher percentage of earnings is outside the cap.  Doing away with the earnings cap is estimated to cover benefits for an additional 30 years—at which point no one knows what the demographics will look like.  That isn’t necessarily the best solution, but it shows that solving the problem is only a matter of will.

As for Medicare, the issue–rising medical costs–is the same problem faced by every developed country and every insurance company in the world.  There’s no way that problem isn’t solvable.

In fact with growing income inequality, the tax system has become more regressive overall, and it takes surprisingly little adjustment to save the middle class.

Current personal income tax tiering is simply out of whack with the magnitude of the incomes built up by growing inequality.  Also, despite the dire predictions of the “jobs as gifts” fiction, there is no evidence that taxing high end personal incomes costs jobs.  Obviously there are many things worth fixing in the tax code, but it doesn’t take high risk or rocket science to generate money to save the middle class.

As to getting there, you might (or might not) say:  the only thing we have to fear is fearmongering itself!  Unfortunately there is a lot of it:

– Citizen’s United—lets individuals put limitless money into politics (“Jobs are gifts!”, “Governments can do nothing!”)

– Limitations of the press—entertainment seems to win out over substance

– Demagogues and politics of identity—unfortunately always a danger in democracy

One can only hope that people will come to realize that “jobs are gifts” is just a trick, and that divisiveness and scapegoating are conscious techniques of some members of the .01% to divide and conquer the broader population.

We have to be very clear this is not anti-business.  Historically what works is to have government and business as countervailing forces that keep each other honest.   That’s what gave us prosperity in the past, and what is clearly (explicitly) out of kilter in the present.

The one good thing you can say about the present state of affairs is that perhaps it is the cathartic moment that lets people realize that the grim worldview is false, that they don’t have to be fighting with each other for shrinking crumbs from the elite, and that broader prosperity is not only possible, but actually doable.