Tag Archives: economy

Toto: We Aren’t In Brownback’s Kansas Anymore

Remember Sam Brownback? When he was elected Governor of Kansas, he vowed that the GOP’s economic theology–aka “trickle down”– would create an economic paradise, and he immediately set about implementing that theology.

In 2012, with the help of Kansas’ overwhelmingly Republican legislature, Brownback completely eliminated income taxes for more than 100,000 businesses and significantly reduced taxes on the wealthy.

For years, Republicans have been telling us that such steps would boost economic growth, and that they would more than pay for themselves, and Brownback was evidently a True Believer. Ardent belief notwithstanding, Brownback’s policies not only failed to deliver the promised prosperity, they devastated the state’s economy.

State revenues fell dramatically. School years and school days were shortened, public construction projects came to a screeching halt, Medicaid benefits were reduced, and job creation simply stopped.

As Harold Myerson has reported (link unavailable),

By 2016, Kansas voters—including Republicans who objected to seeing their children’s educations shortchanged—revolted. As the Prospect’s Justin Miller reported at the time, Republican primary voters, joined by Democrats, ousted legislators who refused to repeal the tax cuts, and in 2017, the new legislature overrode Brownback’s veto of a bill repealing the cuts. In 2018, voters elected Democrat Laura Kelly as their new governor, and today, with adequate funding restored, Kansas has resumed its support for education, infrastructure, and the basics of civilization.

This month, CNBC came out with its annual list of America’s Top States for Business, a ranking on which states don’t move up or down very much from one year to the next. Which is why attention must be paid, as Americans for Tax Fairness has pointed out, to one massive exception to this rule. On this year’s list, Kansas placed 19th—which is a full 16 places higher than it placed last year.

There’s a lesson there, but some people–and political ideologues–refuse to learn.

Trump and Mitch McConnell repeated what I’ve come to call the “Brownback Argument” to justify what Myerson dubs “the Great Federal Tax Giveaway to Corporations and the Rich Act of 2017–18.”

In consequence, share buybacks have soared to new heights while wages and infrastructure investment have barely risen, when they’ve risen at all. The federal government, of course, can run deficits, while states are constitutionally prohibited from doing so—which is why the Trumpistas have chiefly engaged in targeted rather than across-the-board cutbacks in federal spending. (The targets, of course, have been the poor and minorities.)

Brownback was politically run out of town on a rail—resigning early in 2018 to become the Trump administration’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. (Unlike Tsarist Russia, our government lacks a position like Procurator of the Holy Synod, a sort of directorship of pogroms, though Stephen Miller at times seems to have become that position’s functional equivalent.) Is it too much to hope that American voters relegate Trump to history’s dustbin as their Kansas compatriots did to Brownback?

We can hope–for reasons including but definitely not limited to idiotic economic policies.

If there is one thing that the cult that is today’s Republican Party has repeatedly demonstrated, it’s that both religion and political ideology rely on faith rather than evidence.

 

Not-So-Merry Christmas?

I keep remembering the line Yul Brynner used  whenever he was faced with a conundrum in The King and I?  “It’s a puzzlement.”

As Americans count down to the 2020 elections, those of us who view the Presidential contest as a critical referendum on the American Idea and the rule of law are torn. We want to stop this corrupt and incompetent administration from doing even more harm between now and then, but we also know that preventing the worst consequences of Trump’s madness will work in his favor.

Take the damage being done to the economy by his ham-handed imposition of tariffs.

As an article in the Washington Post recently put it,

There’s a case to be made that Trump has the upper hand in these trade disputes because the United States buys more from China and Mexico than those countries buy from the United States. To put it another way, China and Mexico need Trump economically more than he needs them.

But that’s just the raw economic calculation. Trump is also facing a campaign for reelection in 2020, and he’s banking on a strong economy to propel him to victory. There are already signs that Trump’s trade policies are making the markets and economy jittery, and the pain is likely to escalate if he doesn’t make some deals by September.

People who actually understand economics and trade policy (a category that clearly excludes Donald Trump) are warning that America’s economy is losing steam. Despite Trump’s fantasies, coal is dying, factories aren’t coming back and companies that are still here are pocketing their tax windfalls, not creating new jobs.

Tariffs are taxes on the American people. So far, those costs have been modest. As Trump and top White House officials frequently point out, inflation (a good gauge of price increases across the economy) has remained low, which helps explain why there hasn’t been widespread public revolt over the tariffs, except among farmers and some manufacturers who have been hit the hardest.

Experts who follow economic trends warn that the costs of Trump’s delusional “dealmaking” are likely to ramp up in August and September. That’s because he appears intent upon announcing new rounds of tariffs– thus dramatically increasing the costs Americans will have to pay for goods, and making it probable that people will notice that they, not China, are paying the tab for Trump’s version of trade policy.

August and September are when U.S. retailers import goods for the holiday shopping period. Retailers warn that If Trump’s tariffs are still in place then, “it will be nearly impossible not to pass some — if not all — costs on to consumers for holiday season 2019.”

Consider the numbers. At the start of the year Trump’s tariffs cost the typical family of four about $480 a year, according to calculations by the right leaning Tax Foundation and The Washington Post. Last month Trump increased tariffs on China, which lifted the cost for a typical family of four to $860 a year…If Trump moves forward with his other threat to put tariffs on all Chinese imports by the end of the summer, the cost would jump even higher — to more than $2,000 for a family of four.

And it’s not just higher costs. Retailing–and retail employment– is already on the ropes. As one columnist recently noted,

Last week, 661 firms — including major players such as Costco, Target and Hallmark — signed a letter pleading with the administration not to use tariffs as a cudgel in its efforts to address China’s trade abuses. The USTR has also received more than 1,600 written comments thus far, overwhelmingly negative.

These, like the USTR public hearings, echo what big retailers had already been warning investors and customers: Sweeping tariffs will stress already-thin profit margins and lead to layoffs. They will also raise prices for U.S. households by hundreds or thousands of dollars, wiping out the value of Trump’s tax cuts.

My only quibble with that letter is with the notion that the tax cuts had value…

So here’s the conundrum: Consumer spending is the backbone of the U.S. economy. If Trump continues with his “Tariff Man” antics, the economy will suffer, and the working poor, as usual, will bear the brunt of the pain.

On the other hand, other than appeals to racism, Obama’s economy is pretty much the only thing Trump has going for him.

Should good Americans root for a downturn that would be likely to ensure Trump’s defeat, even though it would cause pain for so many people? Or should we hope that sane policymakers can keep him from tanking the economy–  thereby improving his election prospects?

It’s a puzzlement.

Consider The Metric

One thing about living in tumultuous times….

Questions that are rarely asked when things are calm and going well– about the purpose of government, the proper operation of the economy, and the nature of citizens’ obligations to each other– get revisited.

Take the economy. Ever since Milton Friedman preached that the bottom line consists only of the bottom line–that success is measured by profit and shareholder return–businesses have adopted the measure as dogma. But as David Brooks has reminded readers, keeping shareholders happy at the expense of other stakeholders is a relatively recent phenomenon (not to mention shortsighted).

In a healthy society, people try to balance a whole bunch of different priorities: economic, social, moral, familial. Somehow over the past 40 years economic priorities took the top spot and obliterated everything else. As a matter of policy, we privileged economics and then eventually no longer could even see that there could be other priorities.

For example, there’s been a striking shift in how corporations see themselves. In normal times, corporations serve a lot of stakeholders — customers, employees, the towns in which they are located. But these days corporations see themselves as serving one purpose and one stakeholder — maximizing shareholder value. Activist investors demand that every company ruthlessly cut the cost of its employees and ruthlessly screw its hometown if it will raise the short-term stock price.

We turned off the moral lens.

I know that reaction to Brooks is mixed, but in this column, he makes some good points. The most important is his closing:

The crucial question is not: How can we have a good economy? It’s: How can we have a good society? How can we have a society in which it’s easier to be a good person?

America seems to have lost sight of the fact that economic systems should be judged on whether they enable what Aristotle called human flourishing. Citizens don’t exist for the economy; the economy exists to support a healthy society. The single-minded pursuit of shareholder profit elevates the wrong goals and creates perverse incentives.

And that brings me to another article.

Scientists and social scientists can confirm that what and how you measure something matters. We all know that school teachers spend more time on subjects that are tested, and that employers who reward employees on the basis of speed rather than quality will get more speed and less quality. When the metric for evaluating economic performance is GDP, which measures the dollar value of goods produced, the result tells us little or nothing about the well-being of citizens or the health of the society.

As the Sarasota Institute points out in the referenced article,

GDP growth says nothing about how the benefits of higher growth are distributed. We can imagine high GDP growth with the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer. Only if GDP growth produces income growth for everyone could we say that the general welfare has been increased.

GDP growth does not say anything about the composition or quality of the output. GDP will grow with higher cigarette and alcohol consumption and more guns sold but this says little about well-being growth. In addition, GDP would grow even if the average quality of goods declined.

GDP growth ignores the costs that have been incurred in achieving that growth. Consider that more GDP probably increases air and water pollution and more traffic congestion. Consider that GDP growth could be the result of more people working longer hours and having less leisure time.

The article references Bhutan’s approach: the Gross Happiness Index.

My husband and I were intrigued by that metric when we visited that small country several years ago. (Evidently others were equally intrigued; several countries are experimenting with a similar approach.) The four pillars of GNH were:  sustainable development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance.

The index rests on the assumption that a person is likely to be happier if the economy grows, if cultural values are satisfying, if the natural environment is pleasurable, and if the government operates in the interests of the citizens.

There are other proposed indexes as well: the Human Development Indicator would shift the focus from national income to people centered policy. (This index started to gain momentum when– between 2002 and 2006–personal income in United States fell but GDP continued to increase); a Social Progress Index focused on social and environmental needs; and recently, a Happy Planet Index, measuring whether people are happier, if they live longer lives, if the income distribution is only moderately skewed, and if people have a low carbon footprint.

All of these proposed indexes recognize that you get what you measure.

Metrics matter.

It Depends And It’s More Complicated Than That

As I like to tell my students, I consider my Law and Policy class effective if, after taking it, they use two phrases more frequently than they did before they enrolled: “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

That measure of effectiveness would undoubtedly be incomprehensible to the voters who  installed as President of the United States a man who had neither experience with nor even a rudimentary understanding of government. Evidently, people who would agree that doctors need to attend medical school and serve a residency in order to treat the complexities of the human body think managing an organizational behemoth responsible for the common lives of over 350 million people can be handled by anyone able to fog a mirror and regurgitate talking points.

Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles disabuse readers of that idiocy in the book they recently co-authored: “The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.” In it, they deconstruct the mindless mantra of “deregulation.”

When Republicans look at what they’ve gotten out of their current moment of unified government, they can point to cutting corporate taxes, some judicial appointments and … not much else. Beyond that, they claim that they’ve teed up the economy for explosive growth through the magic of “deregulation.” But deregulation is a term that should be banned from the nation’s policy lexicon, mixing as it does equal parts wholesome and foul — in this administration, almost exclusively foul.

As they proceed to explain, whether rolling back a given regulation will be helpful or damaging depends on the nature  and purpose of the regulation. It’s more complicated–much more complicated– than the one-size-fits-all “get government out of the way” zealotry that has increasingly characterized the GOP.

The wholesome justification for deregulation arises when government uses its power in ways that gum up the dynamic power of markets. In the long run, our nation’s wealth and the opportunity it provides for improving quality of life depend on the forces of creative destruction. In competitive, open markets, incumbent actors cannot prevent challenges from more nimble competitors, armed with new products or more efficient ways of organizing the production process.

The authors identify a number of regulations that do “gum up” markets, and agree that eliminating or relaxing them would be healthy for the economy and likely to reduce the growing gap between the rich and the rest.

They also note that those aren’t the regulations being eviscerated.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of regulation that the Trump administration has been attacking. Instead, it has been sharpening its knives for precisely the kinds of regulation that, far from distorting markets, help to improve them. In particular, regulation is often necessary to a properly functioning market when, in its absence, businesses can make a profit by pushing costs onto others, in effect forcing others to subsidize their bottom line. In two areas, the environment and finance, these are exactly the sorts of market-improving regulation that the administration has put in its cross hairs, with the effect of increasing profits via freeloading.

In an article in the New York Times, Lindsey and Teles make the point that there is a critical difference between regulations that operate to protect dominant business interests and regulations that legitimately, if often imperfectly, address real problems of market failure.

Effective deregulation requires knowing the difference.

For that matter, effective government requires public managers who respect evidence, are committed to the common good, and understand how our complicated government works. The looters who are currently in control of all the levers of the state don’t come close to meeting those criteria.

It Isn’t That Simple

We Americans tend to be “either/or” people. A policy is right or wrong; a system is good or bad, “those people” are all sterling characters or (more frequently) worthless bums.

Things aren’t going well, and need to change? We throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Speaking of throwing, the election of Donald Trump has thrown a number of the problems with American governance into stark relief;  it’s hard to deny the influence of money, or the venality of certain lawmakers. But rather than resolutions to correct the laws and political processes that have led to the current mess, I am increasingly reading diatribes from people who have decided that it is all capitalism’s fault, and want to replace the country’s system of market economics with socialism.

As the kids might say, let’s get real.

First of all, the worst aspects of our current, deeply dysfunctional economy aren’t capitalism. A genuinely capitalist system is regulated by an impartial “umpire” (the government) to ensure that enterprises compete on that all-important level playing field. What we have today is corporatism: Corporatism has been described as what you have when you lose the laws and regulations that have kept businesses from being able to buy politicians– a system where government is effectively “owned” by special interests.

Market capitalism encourages transactions between willing buyers and sellers, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to those transactions. Socialism is a system for the collective provision of goods and services that don’t meet that criterion–goods and services that the market cannot supply efficiently or fairly.  We “socialize” things like infrastructure, police and fire protection, and protection of clean air and water.

A healthy, growing economy requires both. Virtually all western industrialized countries have mixed economies, meaning that the government socializes certain areas of the economy and leaves other areas to the market. The challenge is to get the mix right.

Both capitalism and socialism can be manipulated by greedy or unethical offiicials–that’s why electing people who demonstrate respect for ethics and the rule of law is so critical. Unregulated capitalism becomes corporatism, allowing the “big guys” to prey on smaller businesses and consumers. Socializing too much of the economy depresses innovation,  invites stagnation and encourages petty bureaucrats to abuse their authority.

If we want to fix our broken economic system–and not so incidentally, our broken government–there is no substitute for doing the hard work of re-regulating markets in those sectors where markets work well, and carefully socializing areas (like health care) where the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that markets do not and cannot work.

We can and should argue about the level of regulation we impose on market enterprises–what is too much, what is not enough?–and we can and should require hard evidence before moving to socialize additional areas of the economy. What we shouldn’t do is apply  bumper-sticker solutions to problems requiring careful analysis and measured policymaking.

We don’t need to throw the baby out–just the dirty bathwater.