Tag Archives: Krugman

Tariff Time…

Trump’s Tariffs went into effect last week, and the response from America’s trading  partners has been predictable–with one possible caveat. The targeted nations have responded by imposing their own tariffs, as expected–but they have also focused those retaliatory measures on goods produced in states that supported Trump. It’s an interesting gambit; we’ll see how it plays out.

The Republican Party used to be adamantly opposed to tariffs and trade wars, but the supine and complicit GOP Senators and Representatives currently serving have barely uttered a peep. It isn’t because they don’t know the dangers a trade war poses to the recovery we are currently enjoying–it’s because they must once again choose between the remaining shreds of their integrity and their business constituents, on the one hand, and the rabid Trump supporters who form a majority of the shrinking party’s base on the other.

As usual, Paul Krugman’s analysis of the political calculations involved is direct and on point. Krugman connects two very important dots: the longstanding Faustian bargain between big business and the GOP’s racist foot-soldiers, and the party’s war on expertise and evidence.

The imminent prospect of a trade war, it seems, concentrates the mind. Until very recently, big business and the institutions that represent its interests didn’t seem to be taking President Trump’s protectionist rhetoric very seriously. After all, corporations have invested trillions based on the belief that world markets would remain open, that U.S. industry would retain access to both foreign customers and foreign suppliers.

Trump wouldn’t put all those investments at risk, would he?

Yes, he would — and the belated recognition that his tough talk on trade was serious has spurred a flurry of action. Major corporations and trade associations are sending letters to the administration warning that its policies will cost more jobs than they create. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has begun an advertising campaign to convince voters of the benefits of free trade.

As Krugman notes, there is a heaping pile of “just deserts” here; corporate America has played cynical politics for years and is reaping what it sowed.

What do I mean by cynical politics? Partly I mean the tacit alliance between businesses and the wealthy, on one side, and racists on the other, that is the essence of the modern conservative movement.

For a long time business seemed to have this game under control: win elections with racial dog whistles, then turn to an agenda of tax cuts and deregulation. But sooner or later something like Trump was going to happen: a candidate who meant the racism seriously, with the enthusiastic support of the Republican base, and couldn’t be controlled.

The nature of that alliance became abundantly clear to anyone paying attention in 2016. But Krugman’s other important point is still insufficiently appreciated.

When organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or the Heritage Foundation declare that Trump’s tariffs are a bad idea, they are on solid intellectual ground: All, and I mean all, economic experts agree. But they don’t have any credibility, because these same conservative institutions have spent decades making war on expertise.

The most obvious case is climate change, where conservative organizations, very much including the chamber, have long acted as “merchants of doubt,” manufacturing skepticism and blocking action in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s hard to pivot from “pay no attention to those so-called experts who say the planet is warming” to “protectionism is bad — all the experts agree.”

Similarly, organizations like Heritage have long promoted supply-side economics, a.k.a., voodoo economics — the claim that tax cuts will produce huge growth and pay for themselves — even though no economic experts agree. So they’ve already accepted the principle that it’s O.K. to talk economic nonsense if it’s politically convenient. Now comes Trump with different nonsense, saying “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” How can they convince anyone that his nonsense is bad, while theirs was good.

Krugman ends his analysis by pointing to another looming threat to business (and the rest of us): authoritarianism. As he notes, it isn’t simply world trade that’s at risk, but the rule of law. “And it’s at risk in part because big businesses abandoned all principle in the pursuit of tax cuts.”

Meanwhile, the experts who are scorned by this administration are weighing in on the likely consequences of Trump’s economic ignorance:

There’s no formal definition of what constitutes a trade war, but the escalating exchange of trade barriers between the United States and its trading partners has hit a point where most economists say there will be a negative impact. Companies will scale back on investments, growth will slow, consumers will pay more for some items, and there could be more job losses. The Federal Reserve warned Thursday some companies are already scaling back or postponing plans.

We all need to hang on tight, because when you give the keys of your economic vehicle to a guy who couldn’t pass the drivers’ test, your ride is likely to be something between bumpy and disastrous.

 

 

Trashing The Economy

Schadenfreude would be appropriate if real people weren’t being hurt.

Recent business news included the planned overseas move by that icon of Americana, Harley-Davidson. Although a quote attributed to the CEO to the effect that Trump is a moron who knows nothing about either trade or economics turned out to be bogus, the  decision to move production offshore sends a not-dissimilar message.

As Paul Krugman noted in a recent column, Harley-Davidson may be an icon, but it isn’t really a big economic player.

Nonetheless, I think the Harley story is one of those anecdotes that tells us a lot. It’s an early example of the incentives created by the looming Trumpian trade war, which will hurt many more American companies and workers than Trump or the people around him seem to realize. It’s an indication of the hysterical reactions we can expect from the Trump crew as the downsides of their policies start to become apparent — hysteria that other countries will surely see as evidence of Trump’s fundamental weakness.

No President can be an expert on all of the subjects on which a President must make consequential decisions. Most of those who have occupied the Oval Office have compensated for that reality by surrounding themselves with credentialed, expert advisers. But then, most of Trump’s predecessors were mentally stable enough to recognize that a need for advice about a highly technical area isn’t tantamount to an admission of inferiority.

There’s a reason the Trump Administration is filled with incompetents and sycophants–increasingly from Fox News–and even then, has seen unprecedented turnover.

And what Trump’s alleged experts have to say about the controversy offers fresh confirmation that nobody in the administration has the slightest idea what he or she is doing.

About that trade war: So far, we’re seeing only initial skirmishes in something that may well become much bigger. Nonetheless, what’s already happened isn’t trivial. The U.S. has imposed significant tariffs on steel and aluminum, causing their domestic prices to shoot up; our trading partners, especially the European Union, have announced plans to retaliate with tariffs on selected U.S. products.

And Harley is one of the companies feeling an immediate squeeze: It’s paying more for its raw materials even as it faces the prospect of tariffs on the cycles it exports. Given that squeeze, it’s perfectly natural for the company to move some of its production overseas, to locations where steel is still cheap and sales to Europe won’t face tariffs.

Opposition to tariffs used to be a hard-and-fast position of (what used to be) the Republican Party. It was a position I heartily endorsed, for reasons that Krugman alludes to and all Americans will soon begin to appreciate. That Harley and other companies would choose to move in reaction to those tariffs was entirely predictable.

But while it’s what you’d expect to see, and what I’d expect to see, it’s apparently not what Trump expected to see. His view seems to be that since he schmoozed with the company’s executives and gave its stockholders a big tax cut, Harley owes him personal fealty and shouldn’t respond to the incentives his policies have created….

So what do Trump’s economists have to say about all of this? One answer is, what economists? There are hardly any left in the administration. But for what it’s worth, Kevin Hassett, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, isn’t echoing Trump’s nonsense: He’s uttering completely different nonsense. Instead of condemning Harley’s move, he declares that it’s irrelevant given the “massive amount of activity coming home” thanks to the corporate tax cut.

That would be nice if it were true. But we aren’t actually seeing lots of “activity coming home”; we’re seeing accounting maneuvers that transfer corporate equity from overseas subsidiaries back to the home corporation but in general produce “no real economic activity.”

As real economists and business reporters have documented, those tax reductions have once again failed to “trickle down” to the workers they were supposed to benefit. Most have been used in corporate stock buy-backs. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are voting to rob Social Security and Medicaid and make access to other social welfare programs more difficult–just as the Administrations uninformed trade war policy threatens to tank the economy. We are already seeing a weakening in consumer spending.

There is a (very unattractive) part of me that is watching this train wreck as vindication–this is what happens when you turn government over to people who ignore history and evidence and scorn the “effete elites” who actually know what they’re doing.

Schadenfreude.

But then I think of all the people who will suffer needlessly thanks to this clown and his circus…

 

Crypto-Currency! File Under WTF?

Bless Paul Krugman. His is the first explanation I can understand. 

I have been reading about Bitcoin for a couple of years–about speculation in this “crypto-currency,” about competitors who are equally “crypto,” about people who are willing to be paid for goods and/or services in this new medium.

The problem is, I can’t get my head around it.

I know that U.S. currency was originally backed by gold, and is currently backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. (Our stability led lots of countries to “park” their assets in the U.S.–I wonder how long it will take Trump and his band of Keystone Kops to erode their trust…) I have no idea what backs Bitcoin, so I was interested in the linked Krugman column.

If you’ve been living in a cave and haven’t heard of Bitcoin, it’s the biggest, best-known example of a “cryptocurrency”: an asset that has no physical existence, consisting of nothing but a digital record stored on computers. What makes cryptocurrencies different from ordinary bank accounts, which are also nothing but digital records, is that they don’t reside in the servers of any particular financial institution. Instead, a Bitcoin’s existence is documented by records distributed in many places.

And your ownership isn’t verified by proving (and hence revealing) your identity. Instead, ownership of a Bitcoin is verified by possession of a secret password, which — using techniques derived from cryptography, the art of writing or solving codes — lets you access that virtual coin without revealing any information you don’t choose to.

It’s a nifty trick. But what is it good for?

My question exactly! (This is one of those times–multiplying in number–when I come face-to-face with the fact that the world has passed me by. Technology has eclipsed my ability to understand it…)

In principle, you can use Bitcoin to pay for things electronically. But you can use debit cards, PayPal, Venmo, etc. to do that, too — and Bitcoin turns out to be a clunky, slow, costly means of payment. In fact, even Bitcoin conferences sometimes refuse to accept Bitcoins from attendees. There’s really no reason to use Bitcoin in transactions — unless you don’t want anyone to see either what you’re buying or what you’re selling, which is why much actual Bitcoin use seems to involve drugs, sex and other black-market goods.

So Bitcoins aren’t really digital cash. What they are, sort of, is the digital equivalent of $100 bills.

Krugman explains that equivalency: neither Bitcoins nor $100 bills are used in most ordinary transactions. But hundred dollar bills are evidently popular with thieves, drug dealers and tax evaders. Unlike hundred-dollar bills, which are backed by the U.S. government, Bitcoins have no intrinsic value. Its “value” is whatever the parties to the transaction are willing to assign to it.

Combine that lack of a tether to reality with the very limited extent to which Bitcoin is used for anything, and you have an asset whose price is almost purely speculative, and hence incredibly volatile. Bitcoins lost about 40 percent of their value over the past six weeks; if Bitcoin were an actual currency, that would be the equivalent of a roughly 8,000 percent annual inflation rate.

Oh, and Bitcoin’s untethered nature also makes it highly susceptible to market manipulation. Back in 2013 fraudulent activities by a single trader appear to have caused a sevenfold increase in Bitcoin’s price. Who’s driving the price now? Nobody knows. Some observers think North Korea may be involved.

But what about the fact that those who did buy Bitcoin early have made huge amounts of money? Well, people who invested with Bernie Madoff also made lots of money, or at least seemed to, for a long time.

Krugman quotes a currency expert who describes Bitcoin as a “naturally occurring” Ponzi scheme.

I’m still pretty hazy about what Bitcoins and their competitors are, or why it takes so much electricity to “mine” them.  I’m clearly not cut out for the “brave new world” of digital money–or new and improved skullduggery.

Magic Astericks

Paul Krugman shines a light on the antics of the not-ready-for-prime-time party:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

Krugman details the spending cuts that are specified–“savage” cuts in food stamps, Medicare and other programs upon which millions of Americans have come to rely. And of course, repeal of the hated “Obamacare.” Read through his column, and you have a picture of the priorities of people who have lost touch not just with reality, but with decency.

And that brings Krugman to his most important point, and one we should all ponder–especially those of us who called the GOP home before the party became a collection of radicalized, resentful inhabitants of an alternate reality.

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

O.K., I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

Krugman can be fact-checked; his numbers are accurate. But as a scroll through Facebook or the comments section of your favorite news source will confirm, facts don’t matter. Evidence doesn’t matter.

Crazy rules. And it’s terrifying, because you can’t talk to crazy.

 

 

 

Faith-Based Realities

A comment to yesterday’s blog on “fact rejection” referenced a similar meditation by Paul Krugman. Krugman, as one might expect, focused upon the phenomenon in the context of economic dogma versus performance.

You might wonder why monetary theory gets treated like evolution or climate change. Isn’t the question of how to manage the money supply a technical issue, not a matter of theological doctrine?

Can anything reverse this descent into dogma? A few conservative intellectuals have been trying to persuade their movement to embrace monetary activism, but they’re ever more marginalized. And that’s just what Mr. Nyhan’s article would lead us to expect. When faith — including faith-based economics — meets evidence, evidence doesn’t stand a chance.

Seven years ago, I wrote a book titled God and Country: America in Red and Blue (still available through Amazon if anyone is interested), in which I explored–among other things–the effect of America’s early Calvinism on present-day social welfare and poverty policies.

My research confirmed that several of our ostensibly secular policy preferences have decidedly religious roots. From poverty to foreign policy to the environment, religious world views are far more potent than most of us realize.

Our everyday experiences with “reality rejection” tend to reinforce the prevalence of the phenomenon.  At least mine do.

Several years ago, I was the guest on a call-in radio program in Charleston, South Carolina, and the discussion turned to what was then a hot issue: posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. A caller who favored doing so “quoted” James Madison to the effect that the Bill of Rights could only be entrusted to people who lived by the Ten Commandments. The quote had been previously circulated by an extremist organization and thoroughly discredited; Madison had not only never said anything of the sort, but the sentiment was contrary to everything he did say.

I politely informed the caller that his information was incorrect, and referred him to a Madison scholar for verification, whereupon he yelled “Well, I think it’s true!” and hung up.

Those of us who try to live in the “reality-based community” have our jobs cut out for us.