On the North Korean Deal

Comment to the NY Times:

You have to say Trump got what he wanted—something that he could sell as an accomplishment for the mid-term elections. Kim of course had a stronger negotiating position, since he didn’t need a deal in the same way.  What we’ve got is a repeat of the way this process started: Trump gives in to Kim and gets lauded as a peacemaker. Maybe the press will grow up.

Kim got a cancellation of military exercises—a clear signal of US disengagement in the area. Good news for him and for China. The US got nothing, since sanctions were effectively abandoned by China when the negotiation process started. Kim’s statement of principles is no more of a commitment than what he’s said all along.

It also needs to be noted that the whole affair amounts to a ringing endorsement of nuclear proliferation.

Best quote thus far (from the Guardian):

Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), tweeted: “We support diplomacy and peaceful solutions. But there is no agreement on nuclear disarmament and this all looked more like a big welcome party to the nuclear-armed club.”

Trump’s Fabulous Foreign Policy Triumphs

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Trump’s foreign policy has been a media success. David Brooks has decreed that Trump’s “Lizard Wisdom” is far superior to liberal elitism.  Others have called attention to Trump’s fiendishly-clever strategy of brutal attack followed by pull-back to less crazy positions.  That approach hasn’t done much for the real world, but it sure has worked with the press.

With North Korea the press turned from hysteria at the “rocket man” rhetoric to admiration when Trump decided to cool it by accepting Kim’s meeting proposal.  All that  happened, though, is that Kim received a gift that North Korean leaders have wanted for years—certified international status—with no preconditions, which is to say with no commitment to do anything at all.

Kim is running this show for his own benefit.  Whether there will be advantages or disadvantages to the US remains to be seen, but Chinese president Xi sure doesn’t look unhappy.  And the presumption of success adds pressure on Trump to get an agreement under whatever assurances Kim will accept.  The only success in this picture is Trump’s convincing the press of an accomplishment.

Next about China.  David Brooks was crowing about a new opening for American cars—ignoring that Xi had already announced an opening for American cars before the trade war.  Trump’s trade war with China seems to be following the pattern of North Korea:  bluster followed by an agreement that can be trumpeted as “great”.  And the press is likely to fall for it again, overjoyed that the trade war has been replaced by “reason”.

In fact the dual trade wars (China and the EU) have greatly weakened the negotiations with China, and Xi can be quite happy with the cards Trump has dealt.  The U.S. represents 18% of China’s exports; the EU is almost the same.  Trump took half his leverage off the table with the attack on the EU.  As far as Xi is concerned—only in his dreams!

The third issue is the cancelling of the Iran nuclear deal.  This isn’t a case of bluster and retreat, but it’s another pretty story for public consumption.  Trump, Brooks and others talk about the moral imperative (ignoring the nuclear weapons consequences) of imposing sanctions for Iran’s other transgressions.  However, not only is it clear that the sanctions strengthen the hand of the fanatical clerics, but also by turning on the sanctions we have just played our last card.  We’re simply out of the game in Iran, waiting for rescue by regime change.   It’s interesting that we expect ordinary Iranians to love us and hate the Mullahs, because we choose to starve the poor and bankrupt the middle class.

Iran now has no reason (short of war) to care about US policy,  a position they succinctly expressed with the immediate rocket attack on Israel.  We have taken one more step to complete irrelevancy in the Middle East, this time leading to a possible war and a nuclear Iran.

As Trump has said over and over again:  he can’t lose because he owns the press—he’s just too good as copy.  On foreign policy you can push that one step farther: the copy is all you get.

The Trade Wars Are a War on Trade

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

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There haven’t been any book reviews on this site before, but Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is something of a special case.  This is a political book with a message that doesn’t quite fit into the current political environment, and it includes a large body of relevant history.  Not surprisingly, Pinker finds Trump antithetical to the Enlightenment precepts he is defending.  But he also finds plenty of guilt to go around.

To start with, the book seems to have two competing objectives:

  1. Validating the fact of human progress and documenting how it has been achieved. This is really a call to action based on humanistic goals.
  2. Providing reasons for optimism about the future. This is different—good things that are going to happen for reasons such as demographics, outside the scope of specific human actors.

On the face of it, a reader expects the first subject to be primary, if only because (at this point in time) you expect any political book to end up with recommendations for what to do.  But that’s not quite where Pinker is going.  He’s trying to view history not just as a demonstration of what works, but also as a way to understand where things are going longer term.  Since the two objectives are different, it helps to treat them one-by-one.

On the first subject, Pinker does a remarkable job of demonstrating the successes that humanity has achieved—In the longer term, in the last century, and in the past few decades. This involves health, security, standard of living, and many other quantitative measures of human welfare.   Much of this is unfamiliar because, as he says, this kind of thing just doesn’t make news.  The book is worth reading for this part alone.  Pinker does a good job of demonstrating progress and what is responsible for that progress:  science, rationality, and a broad-based desire to create a better world for everyone.  It is hard to argue with the historical fact that prosperity is not a zero-sum game.

In passing Pinker tries to dispose of past arguments against enlightenment humanism.  As examples:  Humans are inherently irrational (except when they want to make a point).  Humanism is a white racist production (its advocates were on the anti-imperialist side).   Science ignores human values (just plain not true).

Predicting the future is harder, and overall I’d say that Pinker is not well-served by his desire to make things look positive.  He tries to say that nuclear war is improbable, but we know that just one outlier is bad enough.  He treats the climate change movement as a kind of hysteria, because science will just take care of it in time (based on mostly anecdotal evidence).  He views the populist phenomenon as a brief episode of backsliding until more liberal generations take over from the ones now on the verge of dying out.

So in the end it seems a shame that the future predictions tend to dominate discussions of the book, when it’s the first part—the defense of progress—that is its greatest contribution.

And then there is the question of the call to action.  What Pinker espouses is humanism—the broad-based, rational process that has delivered progress.  The problem is that humanism doesn’t have a political party.

Pinker points out that much of the political process just doesn’t work:  Issue-based movements systematically deny progress for fear of losing momentum (even though that means they frequently get caught in the bind of asking for more money to continue going nowhere).  Discussion of issues is based on faulty statistics and dishonest patterns of argument.  Democracy as a whole is not as rational or responsive as we would like to think (the chapter on that subject is well worth reading).  He gives plenty of examples of bad behavior on both the left and the right.  Both sides contributed to the grim view of reality that was instrumental in producing Trump.

So where do we go from here?  Individuals can learn to be more rational in their behavior and in their evaluation of what they see and read.  They can work with the flawed organizations that are fighting bad actors such as Trump.  They can involve themselves with specific issues and help to push them along.  All told—incremental change but no miracle solution.

That’s actually the optimism of the book.   There’s no silver bullet, but the process has worked thus far.  And hopefully we will keep it going.

Fake News

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Someone has to come out and say it.  Why does Trump keep screaming FAKE NEWS?

Trump is a salesman.  What does a salesman do if there is a flaw in his product:  claim the competition has it.  Puts them on the defensive and hides the real issue.  Fake news is a cover.

That’s all there is to say about fake news.  Contrary to some speculation, Trump is not stupid and not all that delusional.   He knows he’s lying, and he handles it the way he always has.  It’s the other side that’s lying—fake news.

That’s what he’s doing with Mueller, and taxes, and Russia ….  He knows what he is doing, he’s good at it, and he’s got Fox News and lots of other people willing to toe the line and lie for him.

It won’t help to take the bait and play defense.  That’s basically assuming there is misunderstanding and goodwill—which there isn’t.  The only way to fight it is to show that all the real examples are on the other side.  Take a few good ones from the thousands of deliberate factual errors and force his defenders to match them.

And don’t back down.  No matter how preposterous the charges, in this case there is no substitute for offense.

Yet Another Gift to China

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The first point to make is that the current hysteria about a trade war with China is parallel to what happened a few months ago with North Korea.  Then we had weeks of unhinged bluster that kept the press busy around the clock.  Finally it dissipated without a trace when Trump gave in to Kim’s request for a meeting—ignoring all of his and other Presidents’ demands for preconditions.

Trump had his weeks of media-certified toughness and was on to the next photo op.

(It’s not clear what will come out of the meeting, but if the South Korean trade deal is any model—it takes very little to put on a media show of triumph.  Also, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if the two Koreas got together and decided to keep the nukes.  After all, Trump campaigned on a platform of forcing allies to take full responsibility for their own defense!)

A trade war with China is a God-given opportunity.   The Chinese have already announced as yet unspecified trade openings for the West.  So the punch line is already there—all that’s necessary is the prelude.  We’re currently getting our full-scale dose of Trump toughness on trade.  Every time the stock market goes up or down it’s just that much more publicity.  And the conclusion will be a triumphant proof of Trump’s populism for the mid-term elections.  But since Trump needs a deal, that means—as with Kim—that the Chinese are running the show.

As we’ve noted here before, this is a critical time for negotiation with China.   The West needs to be united in setting the stage for what could be a major period of international growth.  By definition this needs to be done within the framework of the WTO.  Instead of that, however, we have Trump claiming a “national security” exemption for every act of his trade war—thereby undermining the whole notion of WTO-based standards for trade.

There’s just nothing that won’t be sacrificed to a photo op.

DACA is Not a Sideshow

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The language around DACA has made it a lot more polarizing as an issue than it should be.  There’s a reason for that, so we need to talk through the basics.

The DACA program involves people who came here at an age when they had no control, who have lived their lives here, who haven’t done anything wrong, and who have enough education to be (as much as can we can tell) on a path to contributing to the economy.  Obviously that just talks about the people, not the issues surrounding them.

The primary issue is what this says about immigration.  The answer is actually not much.

– This isn’t saying anything about open borders.  No one on any side is supporting that.

– This isn’t letting the parents on or off the hook.  That’s a tricky question, but no one is making them citizens.  The parents are not the issue.

– This isn’t giving future waves of immigrants a reason to come here.   By now this is anything but a sure thing, and there are plenty of other reasons for people to come.

– This isn’t an attack on the rule of law.   It’s a case of clemency like any other, where there are arguments for and against.  They didn’t deliberately break the law and have thus far been decent people.

– Most of the stated concerns about foreign immigration don’t apply here.  They’re not culturally different, they speak English, they haven’t taken anyone’s jobs away, and they personally haven’t broken the law.  Their departure is not going to make other peoples’ lives better.

– As for the most basic argument—that’s 700,000 more immigrants we don’t need—the fact is that most of the population fits the category of people whose ancestors came from places where they weren’t on the top of the heap.

What is true is that deporting them is enough of a moral issue that we ought to think about it.  We are talking about sending people to a country they don’t know with a language they don’t speak and washing our hands of the whole affair.  There is no actual hurt from these people.  Most of the country doesn’t seem to want that, but it seems we’re doing it because we can.

What kind of a country does that?   There’s an answer to that question, step-by-step:

– It’s a country where immigration officials have been encouraged to treat anyone who comes through their hands as a potential criminal without rights.

– It’s a country that’s doing everything possible to give up on support of the poor.

– It’s a country actively backing away from support of education, healthcare, social security, and the middle class just generally.

– It’s a country moving toward a level of inequality unheard-of since the 19th century—where slogans about benefits for everyone are as false now as they were then.

It’s no accident that such a country would want to demonize the DACA people.   The less people think about human consequences the better.  Let the others think it’s still their country.

 

We should think carefully about the DACA people.  They’re not the right targets for outrage.  And it’s not just about them.

Inequality

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Inequality is a term so apparently self-evident that it shows up everywhere in political discourse on both the left and the right.  Much of that discourse, however, is so simplistic that it is easily dismissed by the other side:

– For the left, inequality is morally wrong—despite the fact that it can accompany rising living standards even for the people on the short end of the stick.   A fair number of the 238 cities vying for Google’s second headquarters would probably see a rise in both inequality and the general standard of living if they won (just based on an influx at the high-income end).

– For the right, inequality is good since rich people are the “job creators”, so the happier they are the better—despite the fact that there is no evidence for that logic at all. It also seems rather odd to assert that businessmen are so incompetent as to make hiring decisions based on personal satisfaction rather than opportunities to be staffed.

Despite those points, the effects of inequality are neither uncertain nor hard to understand—it’s just easy to be sloppy about it.  This note is an attempt to be more real.

First one must acknowledge that inequality itself is neither bad nor good.  What matters is the well-being of the population, including in particular those on the lower end of the scale.  For people like Steve Jobs (always the first example) personal wealth is the result of creating an economic engine with benefits to many.  It’s hard to argue with that.   And you can push it one step further and say that the incentives for innovation in the US economy are an important reason why the US has been able to stay ahead of the technology curve.  You can even say that the potential for success is an important part of well-being for many people, so that an economy of pure equality—even in the abstract—is not necessarily a good thing.

None of that, however, tells you very much about the effects of growing inequality in the US.  First of all let’s be clear that the increase in inequality is well-established and true for any definition of wealth (income, assets, …) you might want to use.

Further rising inequality here has been no obvious driver of innovation—on the contrary with increasing inequality the US economy has become more and more dominated by large entrenched companies, with less and less room for new companies to succeed.   And no one can argue that the inequality has improved opportunities for people to succeed—on the contrary US society has become less upwardly mobile by every measure.

As for the effect on peoples’ finances—for that there is no ambiguity.  Some of the most telling statistics came in a recent paper examining per-adult income growth for the bottom 50% of the US population.  It turns out that since 1980 there has been no per-adult income growth for the bottom 50%!  That is compared with a 64% increase for the upper 50%, and vastly more for the top 1% (see the chart at the beginning).  Note this was a period when women entered the workforce in large numbers.  Since we’re dealing with per-adult statistics, we’re saying that for the bottom half of the population the net effect of women working was just to keep things from getting worse!  As another example of the same thing—essentially all the benefits of the 2008 – 2015 recovery went to the top 1%.

So what is going on with inequality and what should we think about it?  In broad terms there is no secret.   We can start with the usual three inter-linked suspects:  automation, globalization, and de-unionization.  All of those decrease the power of lower-skilled workers in dealing with management, so growing inequality is no surprise—and the effects are continuing.  While those effects have been felt everywhere, the response of government to that situation has been different in different countries.  In most countries government has attempted to cushion the blow.   That has not been wildly successful, but intervention has at least damped the situation.

In the US the exact opposite has happened.   Perhaps because of the horrendously expensive electoral process here (assisted by Citizens United), we have seen a precipitous rise in the political power of the increasingly rich top.  And political dialogue has naturally evolved to reflect their interests.  Even previously sacrosanct services such as education have suffered loss of public financing; the student debt crisis is an obvious sign.  If you make a list of the public services that the ultra-rich don’t need, e.g.

– Education

– Healthcare

– Retirement

– Social welfare

– Broad-based infrastructure,

it is obvious that all of it has become controversial.   That is contrasted with an area such as defense, where we’re looking for a buildup.

While Trump’s tax plan has been sold as a job creator, that’s not where it came from.  No one is hiding that fact that it is the Republican donors’ tax plan, and its benefits to anyone else are ancillary—and to say the least unproven.  Trump himself came on-board late in the game and conveniently seems to believe that whatever is good for him personally is best for everyone else.  The tax plan shows inequality as a self-reinforcing trend:  more money => more power => even more money.

The bottom line is that inequality in the US is in the process of making this a very different country.  For the poor it means simply less support, though the US has never been very good at that.   The big difference is for the middle class.   Services that they have traditionally relied upon are becoming problematical, and the tax system is increasingly skewed to benefit the rich.  Furthermore the ongoing effects of automation, globalization, and de-unionization have made the threat of falling out of the middle class very real.   It should be emphasized that automation in particular is accelerating as an issue, with artificial intelligence pushing the threat up the income scale.  A recent report predicts almost one-third of existing US jobs could be lost to automation by 2030.

And there’s another problem as well.   Adam Smith himself pointed out that the private sector cannot be trusted to provide the proper environment for its own success.   He saw both policing the private sector (e.g. anti-trust, free entry) and education (to sustain the private sector) as tasks for government.   So growing inequality—with the ultra-rich running the government for their own sake—is not only a threat to the well-being of the population, it is a threat to the vitality of the economy itself.

While solutions are outside the scope of this note, we must recognize that rising inequality puts us on track to become a second-class power with few rich and many poor.  That, as noted last time, is our future as banana republic.