Thinking About Manufacturing

There seems to be a lot of confusion about manufacturing.

We’ll start with a few slogans that pass for generally-accepted truth:

  • Manufacturing is the core of the US economic base.
  • Restoring manufacturing is key to the viability of the US working class.
  • The Chinese have gutted manufacturing in the US.
  • The continuing decline of manufacturing is another indication of the failure of Trump’s economic policies.

One indication that something might be fundamentally wrong in all of that comes from looking at trends in the service and manufacturing sectors over the past twenty years:

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To say the least, it looks like there is something more fundamental going on than politics or even globalization.   Manufacturing has been declining relative to services for many years and in a big way.  It’s not just because of China, and it’s not even just in the US:

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The US has been undergoing a massive migration from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a services economy. One problem is that we don’t really have a good vocabulary to talk about that situation.  The term “services” goes from McDonald’s to Google.  But in any case manufacturing is no longer the core of national economic success.  Think about television.  The sets have become so cheap that only huge volumes can cover the low margins.  But every major company you can think of wants to get into content to run on those sets.  There are hardly even any DVD’s manufactured for that stuff anymore!

We’ve talked here before about software.  All of the leading high tech companies (including Apple) are software companies.  Software companies produce product without manufacturing.  And that’s only one of the reasons such companies can be very profitable:

– They typically sit on top of the value chain (or even, like Facebook, have only software as output)

– They tend to have monopoly power (because dominant players can afford to spend more on R&D)

– They tend to have high barriers to entry and effective customer lock-in

The world economy today has increasingly many highly-profitable dominant software companies.  Some like Google produce software; others like Apple rely on a world-wide agglomeration of highly-competitive businesses producing to their specs.  Our current national success is that we have lots of them.  Our military strength depends on their technology.  The Chinese are sensible enough to understand that’s where they want to be too.  Even in biotech—where there has to be manufacturing—you’re still talking about largely high-skilled operations in companies with a large emphasis on R&D.

 

It’s a little strong to say it, but it’s closer to reality than most of what we hear:  mass employment in manufacturing is like mass employment in agriculture—it has had its day.  The migration is as extreme as what happened a hundred years ago.  And we’re better off thinking about the consequences than blaming it all on the Chinese or trying to outdo each other with promises to make it go away.

That point of view is widely held (based on the figures), but somehow it hasn’t managed to penetrate public discussion.  That’s not surprising for the Trump people, since they’ve been making it all up from the beginning.  For the left it’s different.  Traditional socialism has always had an industrial flavor that is hard to give up.  Unions and trust-busting are good, but they won’t bring back the past.  Forcing businesses that take federal research money to do manufacturing here will help some but not enough to reverse the trends.

(For the left, one particular paper has been frequently cited to show manufacturing job loss is reversible.   That paper concluded that the large manufacturing job losses from 2000 to 2010 were not due to automation here.  However, for its purposes it only examined companies that remained here and checked how many robots they had.  Nothing was said about the reasons any single company had left.)

The question then is what we should do.  The key is to start considering what we see around us as reality:

  • A long-term trend of decline in manufacturing
  • Very profitable, highly technical, non-manufacturing monopolies
  • Complete neglect of domestic services for the public good

We’ve talked about those trends here before.  As we’ve noted, some of the monopoly power is structural, so it’s not clear how far we’ll get with breaking them up.  However, monopoly power means companies are far from cost-sensitive, so the last thing we need to give them is more tax breaks.  On the contrary what’s crucial is learning to tax them, and we’ve got Apple as proof of how tough that can be.

In this picture the public sector has two important roles:

  1. Preparing the country for success in the world economy. That means infrastructure of all kinds, including education and child care as much as roads and bridges. The private sector won’t do it.  But—with an appreciation for the role of government derived from the second world war—we used to do a better job of it ourselves.
  2. Making sure the wealth of the monopolies gets translated into benefits for the population. This is another case where the private sector can’t act for its own good. Henry Ford famously wanted his employees to be able to buy his cars, but that’s certainly not the ethos of today. This doesn’t mean free money, it means employing people for the unfilled tasks needed for the public good.

We need the public sector to be the means of addressing the country’s unmet needs with resources from gilded-age inequality.

It’s worth pointing out that we have been wasting resources on a spectacular scale.  Under George W. Bush we fought a $3T war with no identifiable benefit and underwent a privatization effort (including tax cuts) that ultimately produced a near-depression.   Under Obama the Republican Congress shut down government, retarding recovery and preventing the public sector from doing any of the jobs just described.  Under Trump the primary achievement has been another $2T of tax cuts, with a jump in inequality and a deficit big enough to prevent any of the infrastructure work from getting done.  That the tax cuts went straight into stock buybacks is a clear indication of irrelevance.

It is instructive to think back to the time when the country underwent the last such a drastic economic change, when we went from an agrarian to an industrial society.   People had a hard time then thinking about it.  They got tied up in an irrelevancy—the silver monetary standard—and it took a long time before the real problems of corporate power and inequality were addressed.  A contemporary Henry Demarest Lloyd expressed his frustration this way: “The free silver movement is a fake. Free silver is the cow-bird of the reform movement. It waited until the nest had been built by the sacrifices and labor of others, and then it lay its own eggs in it, pushing out the others which lie smashed on the ground.”

We have something of that problem today.  The long-standing decline in manufacturing is a continuing but unacknowledged reality.  Instead we spend our time blaming it on the immigrants, or the Chinese, or the elites, or some combination of everyone else.  Until the blame game stops we can’t begin to decide how our economy really needs to work in the world we’ve got.  For climate actions we worry about coal miners, but there are many others in the same boat.  There is an international aspect too:  we’re too busy looking for villains to spend time on making the system work for global prosperity.

For our part we think it’s time for the public sector to come in from the cold.   In any case it’s time to stop talking about free silver.

 

 

 

Fixing Capitalism

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

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

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

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

  1. The private sector will not police itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Policing the private sector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Providing the environment for economic success

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

Our technical dominance is based on three factors:

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

ii. Broadly-based government support of research and education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions:

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

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

 

  1. Spending for the common good

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

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

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

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

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

– Environmental protection (Not a luxury)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

More To Say About China

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This piece is a little broader in scope that our past posts about China.  That seems useful, since war-mongering in press coverage of China has put us all in blinders.  We’re not claiming here that the Chinese are angels, but there is a lot more to the story that needs to be discussed.

We start with a couple of basic points, of interest regardless of whether we consider China friend or foe:

  1. China is now the world’s biggest economy and is continuing to grow rapidly. Further its population is more than four times the US.  That has many consequences worth thinking about.
  2. China has built itself up from nothing to a world class challenger in many areas. This is not just—or even primarily—a case of “stealing from us”. It is imperative that we understand their example and what we can learn from it.

On the first point, it should be noted to begin with that while the Chinese economy is the biggest in the world, the country is so big that its per capita income is well-below Mexico.  A rising standard of living in China could drive growth in the rest of the world for quite some time.

That is a dramatic turnaround in what China means to the rest of the world.  It is also the reason why virtually everyone expects China’s trade relations to be renegotiated.  Opening China has moved from a largely theoretical matter (because there just wasn’t that much to be sold) to become the primary issue.

This is the time for negotiation, but it’s also a window of opportunity we can easily miss.  In this, as we’ve noted before, a unilateral trade war is actually counter-productive. We’re defending protectionism, when the primary issue is open access to the Chinese market!  Further by insisting on a bilateral deal, we’re substantially reducing the leverage needed to make the deal a success.  The Business Roundtable of corporate CEO’s said as much prior to the start of current negotiations.  This isn’t about trade deficits; it’s about worldwide rules of fair trade going forward.

Trade negotiation, however, is not the only issue here.  US businesses have long had the luxury of focusing on the domestic market.   Economies of scale will now demand a less parochial view.  An obvious example is loosening of fuel economy standards.  That’s a concession to our automobile industry for the domestic market that will hurt international competitiveness.  Another example is 5G mobile equipment.  US vendors are behind the curve, because the domestic market has been fractured and slow-moving.

We are not doing our economy a favor by granting special favors (including tariffs) to domestic businesses.  That’s just perpetuating the idea that winning here is all it takes.  (Tariffs are also an unreliable and inefficient way of producing jobs.)

As for what we can learn from China, we give a few examples

– Government-sponsored R&D pays big benefits.  That is the single biggest contributor to the Chinese success.   They have created a world-class technological empire out of almost nothing.  Even the much-lamented Chinese technology theft is a non-trivial (if nefarious) accomplishment.  How many companies do a good job managing transitions of responsibility even for their own software?

We used to care about the government role in research too.  It was assumed in the good old days of the 50’s and 60’s. Now we have not only cut back on government R&D (Trump’s latest budget is a recent example), but with the current anti-science nostalgia we’re not even sure we want much to do with scientific progress.

– Education is an imperative.  It’s people who make for national success and we need them to be prepared for the jobs that will defend our national standard of living.  China has been ready to spend the money to make it happen.

– We should want to drive up the value chain.  Despite past history, the Chinese understand perfectly that price-competitive businesses are not the way to go.   Real wealth comes from dominant industries with the power to sell on content instead of price.  That’s what technology can deliver.  It’s simply not in the cards to believe past successes will just revive.

– All businesses need to embrace technology for success.  Even in the cost-sensitive outsourcing business, ease of interworking was an important factor in Chinese success.

– Finally (and paradoxically) a dynamic, decentralized economy is a real plus.  This may seem surprising in a list of lessons from China, but it’s strangely true.  The major impetus that kicked off the Chinese economic miracle was an accidental liberalization.  As a small opening, Chinese municipalities were allowed to run independent businesses once they reached their nationally-set production goals.  As it happened, these independent businesses took off and eventually marginalized the state-run enterprises.  Many morphed into successful private companies.  (Xi is now attempting to put that genie back in the bottle, with reemphasized state enterprises.)

We should never underestimate the value of the dynamism of the US economy.  But we had better be careful to understand what has really worked for us.  There has always been an important government role, and diversity mattered too.  In the Chinese example, success was only possible because government provided the environment, particularly education and infrastructure, for the businesses to grow.  That’s precisely what worked for us establish US dominance in the post-war years.   In general, prosperity requires both the environment and the opportunity to achieve success.

 

All that being said, what can we say about dealing with China?  A few guidelines:

We are misled if we think “enemy” is all we need to know.  China is an important factor for both good and bad in the world economy.  They were an important help in the efforts that prevented a depression in 2008.  They can be a major locomotive in the world economy going forward.  They contribute to the worldwide development of science and technology—which makes us all richer.  They recognize the importance of climate change.  It is our task to make that all work for us.

To get there we need to treat the Chinese like any other adversary—we should deal with them from strength and look for mutual advantages.

It is not productive simply to dictate, with the idea that we can shut them down by denying them access to our market.  We represent 18% of their export market and much less of their total economy.  That’s plenty to cause trouble, but not enough to dictate, and in any case real pain would hurt us as well.  Further, if we want success in their market, there has to be ongoing mutual self-interest—no signed document will do it.   And there’s a historical side of this as well:  China endured some of the worst of western imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  That memory lingers, and we are not served by recalling it with our behavior.  Mutual advantage is much better than antagonistic isolation.

We need to extend the rules for fairness in international commerce through the WTO.  As noted earlier all parties recognize this has to happen, and we have historically led such initiatives.  We have twice the leverage in cooperating with the EU (also 18% of Chinese exports), and we avoid the hypocrisy of endorsing protectionism in the argument for opening of their markets.

Matters such as intellectual property protection and theft should be solvable problems, in part because the Chinese now have much to defend as well.  It’s not for nothing that Huawei is well ahead of the curve in 5G development.   Chinese universities are now high on the list of international institutions (even though Western ones still have cachet in China!), and the Chinese are acquiring patents like everyone else.  It’s also true, if seldom noted, that Chinese computer hacking decreased significantly by the end of the Obama years and went way up when Trump declared economic war.

The military installations in the South China Sea are a serious problem, but the fact is that the great majority of Chinese imports and exports pass that way—so it’s not surprising they’re worried about it.  We make that worry all the greater by declaring that it is legitimate to use all resources at our disposal to get the Chinese to do what we want.  The only real solution is some kind of freedom of the seas regional agreement that all parties can have confidence in.

Human rights violations are also important, and we have to keep those issues alive.  It’s hard to know how far we’ll be able to get.  The one thing you can say is that we shouldn’t be too quick to use Xi a stand-in for China as a whole.  We’ve already noted Xi is a throw-back (a “princeling” heir to the Maoist past), so perhaps there is hope for better later.  There are many conclusions to be drawn about us if you take Trump as a stand-in for everything American.

In the end the point is to treat China like any other independent nation.  China as “enemy” has real roots, but also large doses of domestic politics (China has been a convenient excuse for our own misdeeds) and “yellow peril” racism.  China needs to work properly in the international system of trade and ideally also in international security agreements.  Any efforts to avoid a new set of arms races will have to involve them.

Vigilance is fine, but there is at least the potential of much to build on.

Prosperity in Today’s Economy

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The title of this article sounds rather ordinary, but in fact there’s more to say than you might expect.   There aren’t a lot of new facts here, but we bring together several strands of argument that don’t tend to be followed to conclusion.  It’s useful to think step-by-step about prosperity today and going forward.

  1. Our national standing today is largely determined by technology.

There are many aspects to this.  The most obvious one is the role of high-tech companies in the economy.  The NYTimes had an article a few months ago (on the occasion of Apple’s becoming the first $1 T company) with graphic displays showing the size of Apple (as well as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and many others) in the US economy.  The dominance of high-tech is unmistakable. That’s what supports our standard of living and always has. Railroads, steel, automobiles were all high-tech in their day.  (Note this is not saying that Google or Facebook are angels, it’s our national strength in technology that matters.)

It is only because we are on top of that heap that we have the money that supports the rest of the economy.  That includes much of small business and service industries.  It is from the strength of our competitive economic position that we can pay for the non-competitive industries we choose to support.  The aluminum and steel tariffs are being paid by us from the industries that don’t need them.  To state this somewhat differently—we are not going to build a dominant economy by selling each other stuff anyone can make at artificially high prices.

It’s also worth pointing out, given all the discussions of the military budget, that the technology argument applies in spades for the military.  Building new aircraft carriers is not going to make us safe.  One only has to think, theoretically of course, about the effect of a North Korean virus disabling the military’s command and control.  From the chart below, it is obvious that our level of military spending ought to quash everyone else hands down if money were the only object.  But it’s not doing the job, because that’s not the game anymore.  And it’s not just AI, it’s across the board.

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What all this means is that the people who support our technology position are critical resources who matter to all of us.

This is a lot less elitist than it sounds, because it’s not saying we shouldn’t care about or value everyone else (more on that later).   The point is that we shouldn’t be spending our time worrying about who is or isn’t supplanting whom.  Our success depends on nurturing and exploiting the best and the brightest—at least for these skills—and we had better spend our time trying to find them and encourage them, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  And if foreigners choose to come here and establish successful startup companies—mostly in high tech—we should be happy they do.  It is a major strength of the US economy that people find the US to be the best place to realize their ambitions.  We erode that strength at our peril.

Anger at elite technologists may be natural, but they are the wrong targets.  Their effect on the rest of us is positive.  What we need to avoid is a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots, as we’ll discuss later.

  1. Businesses today are different from the past in important ways.

Since we’ve identified the key role played by the tech sector, it’s worth thinking about what kind of businesses those are.  So let’s take a quick look at Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook.

– A first point to notice is that they are all some form of monopoly.  This is not surprising as they are all (even Amazon and Apple) essentially software companies.  Software businesses invite monopoly, because costs of production are minimal. In such cases, research and development costs become primary, and the company with largest market share can afford to offer products with more features than a smaller competitor can.  As automation continues, particularly with AI, similar arguments will apply to much of the rest of the economy.

Managing monopolies is a serious issue:

Monopolies squelch competition.   It is imperative for our success that established companies can’t limit the innovative power of new entrants.  That has been our historical advantage over foreign competitors and is a major factor in any discussion of how we deal with the rise of China.  This is not just a problem with Google, etc.  The demise of Net Neutrality is a classic case of giving in to established players, in this case the major telecom carriers.

Monopolies take more than their share of our money.  Monopoly power limits price sensitivity. Since the determining feature of competition is more often uniqueness more than price point, products are priced at what the market will bear—as with the iPhone or patented drugs.   Furthermore, through manipulation of assets including intellectual property, hi-tech monopolies have been tough to tax.   Apple’s success in this is legendary.   Their windfall from the recent corporate tax cuts is something to behold (and unnecessary as a spur to investment).  It is imperative we learn how to tax monopoly-level profits.

– Next, personal success in these companies requires a high-level of technical competence.   Amazon is obviously a case in point, with two completely different populations:  the mass of box fillers versus the corporate staff.  Note that technical competence is not just a matter for developers, but is also required for the many people in management, support, administration, and even sales.  As just noted, as automation proceeds, this trend will extend well outside of high-tech.

This represents the threat of a two-tiered society, as discussed earlier.  As a country this implies at the very least a basic responsibility for broad-based solid education and a livable minimum wage.

It should be emphasized that strengthening of education is required for both national success and personal prosperity.   Regardless of what advantages we have for staying on top of the heap, we cannot succeed if we don’t have the people to do it.

– Third, all of these business are intrinsically international.  With the growth of the world economy (and China in particular) economies of scale are such that we have to think in global terms.

– Finally our fourth and last comment for this section is about a different trend not limited to high-tech—the institutionalized irresponsibility of business.  It has become gospel that businesses have responsibility only to their investors, and all other considerations are more or less theft.  Businesses used to care about retirement, healthcare, training, even local charity.  But current reality is that if someone is going to care about those things, it’s out of the question for it to be them.

In addition, because of the sheer size of the country, the US more than anywhere else has to deal with the phenomenon of towns or regions where the economic base can just disappear. Company town are the obvious example. In an age of accelerating technology change, we can’t stop such things from happening.   And we can’t expect rescue to happen by all by itself.

However we emphasize this isn’t just about charity.  In the current state of affairs, the private sector is not be doing what’s necessary even to provide the environment for its own success.

That leads to the next topic—what do we need for national success?

  1. Our infrastructure problems mean more than we thought.

Infrastructure has to be thought of as whatever is necessary for national success and personal welfare.  I.e. much more than roads and bridges.  The educational system fits in this category as it is required for both personal and national success.  Declining upward mobility and the student loan crisis are two indications that there is a lot that needs to be done.

Support for theoretical research is in the same category.  It is precursor work for new technologies before they are ready for business. A point worth stressing it that it is not only the research itself that is important—research work assures that there will be a population ready to exploit new opportunities as they arise.

Continuing on, we list a few more significant infrastructure projects needing immediate attention.

– The American Society of Civil Engineers keeps a web site with a break down of national infrastructure requirements.  We currently rate a D+.

– To that we add the urgent needs of combatting climate change, which will be considerable, regardless of how the final plans work out.

– Healthcare is currently in flux with ACA under attack and nothing to replace it.

– Finally we have the general specter of a two-tiered society, with all the misery and threat of conflict that represents.  That too needs to be dealt with as a national problem, and there’s no one in this picture other than government to do it.

Government’s role in this picture is three-tiered:

i. Government needs to make sure everyone has the education and access to the opportunities to succeed.

ii. Government needs to support what is necessary for national infrastructure, much of which will not happen spontaneously in the private sector.

iii. Government needs to supply a last-line safety net for those who fall through the cracks.

This is a non-trivial task, and we emphasize that the biggest part of it is not charity.   We have a current mismatch between a dearth of good jobs and a growing backlog of infrastructure needs of all kinds.

From the point of view here our much-discussed infrastructure needs—back to the roads and bridges—have to be viewed as bellwethers.  The fact that we can’t deal even with roads and bridges means that we have a fundamental problem funding the common good, and we have to take that head on.

  1. There is a mismatch between the needs of our country and the forces that currently control it.

The governing ideology of this country is simple to summarize:  let the private sector do it and get out of the way.  All government regulation is bad, and taxes are just a brake on the private sector’s ability to make everything great.

The chief beneficiaries of this policy are the ultra-rich funders of the Republican Party, although the problem of money in politics (especially after Citizens United) transcends parties. In this enterprise Trump is largely a front man for the real forces running things.

For these people, with fortunes going back even into the nineteenth century, it’s natural to regard the country as a money-machine.  Taxes, regulations, and government services—except for the military—are deductions off the bottom line.

The problem with that view, even for them, is that it is the wrong model for the world we just described.  That set of policies would make sense in an extractive economy, where all that is necessary for success is a cadre of imported experts to arrange for pumping oil with purchased technology.  In that case you don’t need much from the national population in order to collect the proceeds.

That’s not our situation.  As described, we live in a technology-dominated world where the population must earn our national success.  For that world we’re currently going in the wrong direction.  Devaluing education, denying climate change, cutting research, encouraging xenophobia will get to us sooner than we’d like to think.  China is a formidable challenger.

However, it not so hard to be optimistic if we can just be serious about what needs to be done.  We have all the tools for success:  the money, the work to be done, even the means to avoid a two-tiered society.

The story is not complicated.  If we can return to exploiting our strengths, then we should be able to remain in the technological forefront for our chosen areas of focus.   If we can control the monopolies, then the associated margins in an expanding world economy should yield money enough (if we can collect it) to produce a workable society for everyone ready to participate.

There is certainly no shortage of work in the infrastructure area, and it needs all kinds of people.  In this respect the Green New Deal may be too glib in pinning everything on climate change, but their basic idea is correct.   If we play our cards right, the high technology future will provide the funds to support the infrastructure for its own success and for the prosperity of the nation.

We should not underestimate the job.  Careful and transparent planning is critical—defining exactly what needs to be done to support both the economy and the population.  And then determining how that work can be best supplied.

It should be emphasized is that we’re NOT talking about socializing away the free market economy.  If there’s one bad misconception that needs to be hammered down everywhere, it’s the idea that the private sector is magic for all problems.  We’ve just gone down a long list of things it’s not going to do.

Even Adam Smith was clear about this from the beginning.  The private sector is a participant in the public economy, but that economy will deliver the benefits of a free market only if #1 government keeps the private sector from corrupting the markets (e.g with monopolies and bribes) and #2 government provides the resources (e.g. education and other infrastructure) necessary for success.  That’s the definition of our job.

This will necessarily require a renewed focus on government and public service.  It’s interesting that a couple of recent mainstream books (Volker, Lewis) have recognized public service as an important issue.  In that respect “Green New Deal” isn’t a bad term:  we need to be as serious as Roosevelt’s brain trust in planning for the next stage for our country’s future.

This is a battle both old and new.   In Smith’s words, “The interest of [businessmen] is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public …The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.”  Wealth of Nations is only achieved when government does its job.

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.

Unity and Divisiveness

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Newspapers are filled with discussions of our political divisions and whether we can ever return to unity and shared national values. Many of those discussions are quite philosophical.  This one is not.

The first thing to note is that divisiveness is hardly surprising when the two strongest political forces in the country are actively inciting it:

– The mainstream Republican Party is at this point inseparably intertwined with the Koch organization for both money and organization.  There is no secret about the Koch organization’s objective.  They want to return to a world where their ultra-rich members run the country, pay minimal taxes, and do anything they want.   Consequently they want minimal government with defense and very little else—no regulation, only basic education, no social services.   Since those are not necessarily popular positions, the Kochs have been systematic about divide and conquer, using the Tea Party and later Trump as front men to stoke culture wars.  Pence, Pompeo, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are examples of Koch people.  These are the people behind the scenes in the famous NYTimes op-ed piece.

– Trump is a populist front for the Kochs, but with his own objectives as well.  For Trump divisiveness is the name of the game.   It’s his people against the enemy with a siege mentality to build loyalty among the followers.

 

The conclusion from this is that the polarization of attitudes is not entirely—or even primarily—a matter of differing philosophies.  What you have on one side are the self-serving programs of the Koch organization, together with justifications their think tanks have concocted to sell them.   On the other side is a set of attitudes—starting with democracy and including even an immigration proposal—many of which were shared by both parties until the Koch people bought the Republicans.

As noted, Trump and the Tea Party are populist fronts.   Contrary to what you read every day, the Tea Party was not a spontaneous movement; it was created and funded by the Koch organization.  Its prominence, and the prominence of its message were only possible because of the level of funding.  The Tea Party presaged Trump in the “true-believer” attitudes of the members.  The Kochs had studied techniques of the communist party (of all things) to understand how to sell the message of secular paradise.

Trump is a step beyond.  For one thing he has brought the cult of personality to the cult of secular paradise.  For another he has added his own program to the program of the Kochs.  In so doing, he has become a complete mask for what is going on.  His tariff program—no matter how ill-conceived—really sounds populist, and his culture war persona is impeccable.  He’s always in the news.  The Kochs were undoubtedly delighted to see their tax program go through as his achievement.

If Trump really does make himself a dictator the Kochs may get more than they bargained for (and we get to live with it), but for now—despite tariffs, racism, and scapegoating—he’s their guy.

 

So going back to the question of divisiveness, where exactly do we stand?   Support for the Koch-Trump program is of two sorts:  there are those who really do benefit (some level of rich), and there are Trump’s true believers.  Many articles have remarked on the strength of the reciprocal love that binds the latter group with Trump.   Not an easy thing to address.

Why did these people buy in from the beginning?  Lots of reasons have been presented:  economic factors, racism, cultural conflicts, or simple non-homogeneity of the population.  While there is plenty of evidence for the non-economic reasons, it makes sense to focus on the economic ones to start with, because those create an environment where the other evils can flourish.  People fighting over scraps are unlikely to play nice.  It’s true that polarization is self-sustaining once it starts, but addressing people’s concrete problems always has to be a first step.

One thing going for change is that the ideology of private sector salvation has now had a chance to show its true colors.  The tax cuts did not get turned into bonanzas for employees; instead they got turned into this dramatic and revealing chart:

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Furthermore healthcare was a fiasco, and even climate change is emerging as a threat.  The tariffs only sound good—more people buy and build cars than make steel.

The only way any of that matters is if the Democrats do take the House.  If that happens, the Democrats have a chance to show that they can produce solid programs for real problems.  Healthcare was well-chosen if we can get our act together and really do it.  The opioid crisis is still untouched.   It would be nice to produce a jobs program that can get people out of Walmart.  The Republicans have tried to poison opportunities with the tax cuts, but we’ll have to figure a way out.  The ACA tax might be a model.

So the message is that the way back from divisiveness may be more ordinary than it seems.  Stop calling people names and figure out ways to make visible progress.  That may even lead to forced cooperation between parties.  Even if nothing gets implemented, it will be clear what could be.

And someday there may even be justice for the Republican Party’s prolonging the pain of the 2008 crash, so they could deliver the Koch tax cuts!

It’s Always the Elites and the Foreigners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

If Not Now When?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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