Does Free Trade Increase Inequality?

 

Several days ago, David Bonior, a former Congressman from Michigan, wrote in the New York Times about “Obama’s Free-Trade Conundrum”. “The President cannot both open markets and close the wage gap.”  There is an “academic consensus that trade flows contribute to between 10 and 40 percent of inequality increases.”  This happens because “there is downward pressure on middle-class wages as manufacturing workers are forced to compete with imports made by poorly paid workers from abroad.”
CaptureBut there is another point of view, provided, for example, by the report “NAFTA at 20: Overview and Trade Effects”, prepared by the Congressional Research Service about a year ago.  “U.S. trade with its NAFTA partners has more than tripled since the agreement took effect (in 1993).  (Canada and Mexico) accounted for 32% of U.S. exports in 2012.  40% of the content of U.S. imports from Mexico and 25% of U.S. exports from Canada are of U.S. origin.  In comparison, U.S. imports from China are said to have only 4% U.S. content.”  In other words, NAFTA at least has been a huge success.
Being able to trade with others is the foundation of private enterprise.  Foreign trade is simply an extension of domestic trade.  To limit trading opportunities with other countries would be a huge barrier to economic growth and therefore to future prosperity as well.
But at the same time we do want a more equal society as well as well as a more prosperous one.  The key to resolving this “conundrum”, as Mr. Bonior puts it, is to address “opportunity inequality” as well as “income inequality.”
It is estimated that each billion dollars in U.S. exports provides employment for about 5000 workers.  Nebraska, for example, exported $12.6 billion worth of goods and services in 2012 which translates into 63,000 jobs.
More jobs and better jobs are what create economic opportunity.  One way to create more jobs and better jobs is to promote foreign trade by removing as many trade barriers as possible.  Hopefully Congress and the President can work together to get this done!

Invested in America

 

The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies, has just issued a new report, “Invested in America: A Growth Agenda for the U.S. Economy”, describing four actions which policymakers can take to rejuvenate the U.S. economy.
CaptureThey are:

  • Restore Fiscal Stability: constrain federal spending in a manner that reduces long-term spending growth, making both Medicare and Social Security more progressive and less expensive.
  • Enact Comprehensive Tax Reform: adopt a competitive, pro-growth tax framework that levels the playing field for U.S. companies competing in global markets.  Several studies estimate that cutting the U.S. corporate tax rate by 10 % (e.g. from 35% to 25%) would boost GDP by 1% or more.
  • Expand U.S. Trade and Investment Opportunities: pass updated Trade Promotion Authority legislation and use TPA to complete many new trade agreements which are already pending.
  • Repair America’s Broken Immigration System: increase the number of visas for higher skilled workers and provide legal status for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

These are the same “big four” policy changes which many progressive business leaders as well as evenhanded think tank experts often recommend.  They are really just common sense ideas which reasonable people should be able to come together on.
Isn’t it obvious that we’ll soon be in big trouble if we don’t get our enormous budget deficits under control?  And that controlling entitlement spending is key to getting this done?
Isn’t it just as obviously commonsensical that even U.S. based multinational corporations will try to avoid locating business operations in countries like the United States with very high corporate tax rates?
Isn’t it likewise obvious that foreign trade is just an extension of domestic trade and that the world is better off with as much trade as possible?
Finally, the secret of a vibrant, growing economy is to encourage as much initiative and innovation as possible.  Who take more initiative than the immigrants who figure out how to get here in the first place?
We don’t have to accept a sluggish economy, high unemployment and massive debt!  But we do need to take intelligent action to extricate ourselves from the predicament we are in!

How To Address Inequality: A Summary

 

I have had many recent posts addressing the problem of income inequality in the United States and what can and should be done about it.  Below is a chart, from the Congressional Budget office, which also appeared in my December 24, 2013 post.  It shows that all income groups have made gains since 1980 but that higher income groups have gained the most.
CaptureThis means that income inequality is increasing.  The question is what to do about it.  My own attitude is to try to provide more economic opportunity for low income people.  How do we do this in the most effective way?

  • First and foremost by stimulating the private economy to grow faster and therefore to create more and higher paying jobs.  This can be done with broad based tax reform (lowering tax rates offset by closing loopholes), fiscal stability achieved by eliminating deficit spending, expanded foreign trade for a more efficient global economy, and finally, immigration reform to give legal status to undocumented workers and allow more high skilled foreigners to immigrate to the U.S.  Such measures as these require action by Congress and the President.
  • Secondly, by improving human capital, meaning fixing underperforming schools, improving rundown neighborhoods, combatting inner city crime more effectively, providing at least part-time jobs to young people and combatting teenage pregnancy. Problems such as these are best addressed at the state and local level.
  • Finally, providing more motivation for the unemployed and underemployed to find jobs and hold onto them.  A very effective way to do this is with the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.  It supplements the salary of working adults with children.  New York City is conducting an experiment to see if a similar program will also motivate childless adults to try harder to find work and stay employed.

Conclusion:  the best way to address inequality is to give people the best possible opportunity to obtain full time employment.  This means 1) creating more jobs, 2) providing better qualified workers for all jobs and 3) motivating the unemployed more strongly to find jobs and hold on to them.
Government at all levels can help people find jobs, in one way or another, and therefore become more productive citizens.  This will lead to a happier, healthier, and therefore a stronger society.  All of us will benefit from this happening!

An Optimistic View of America’s Future!

 

In the latest issue of Barron’s, Frederick Rowe, the managing partner of Greenbrier Partners Capital Management, asks in “More Than a Sugar High?” , “Can you imagine a country that is managed in an economically rational manner, creating the wealth that’s necessary to take proper care of the citizens who get left behind? … What if our economic recovery is more than a sugar high?  What if there is more here than insanely stimulative monetary policy from the Federal Reserve?  What if the U.S. has already begun to steer an economic course to a period of unprecedented and genuine prosperity, achievement, and problem solving?”
Here are eight factors which Mr. Rowe gives to point us in the right direction:

  • North American Energy Independence (already on the horizon).
  • Sensible Immigration Reform: encouraging our most enterprising and hard-working people to become citizens rather than chasing them away.
  • Repatriation of Corporate Income: if a company domiciled in the U.S. makes money in Argentina and wants to invest it in the U.S. we double-tax the daylights out of it.  It would be hard to imagine a more counterproductive tax policy.
  • Changing Directors and Their Thinking: the once unthinkable mindset of corporate directors acting on behalf of long-term owners (rather than the CEOs with whom they play golf) is actually gaining traction.
  • Lowering Corporate Taxes: the tax-writing committees in Congress are working on this.
  • Increasing Technological Leadership: the most dynamic technology companies in the world are domiciled in the U.S. Technology, in the short run, displaces workers.  But eventually workers catch up because new technology creates new kinds of jobs that were never imagined before.
  • Americanization of the World: more than three billion people around the world will soon be able to afford to live much more like the 300 million Americans do.  So companies which make it big here have an automatic global opportunity.
  • Obamacare:  Even this bureaucratic catastrophe provides a large opportunity for economic opportunity.  Think of Jimmy Carter’s failures which led to Ronald Reagan’s successes.

“Let your imagination run and consider all the things that can be accomplished by an energy-independent, cash-generating, cash-repatriating country that is a hotbed of technological innovation.”
I can’t possibly say it any better than this!

How to Get the Economy Back on Track

 

Harvard Economist, Martin Feldstein, has an Op Ed column in yesterday’s New York Times, “Saving The Fed From Itself”, which gets our current economic situation half right.  First of all, Mr. Feldstein says that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy is inadequate because “the magnitude of the effect has been too small to raise economic growth to a healthy rate.  … The net result is that the economy has been growing at an annual rate of less than 2 percent.  … Weak growth has also meant weak employment gains.  … Total private sector employment is actually less than it was six years ago.  … While doing little to stimulate the economy, the Fed’s policy of low long-term interest rates has caused individuals and institutions to take excessive risks that could destabilize the economy just as it did before the 2007-2009 recession.”  So far he’s right on the button!
But then he goes on to say, “To get the economy back on track,” Congress should enact a five year plan to spend a trillion dollars or more on infrastructure improvement and that this would “move the growth of gross domestic product to above three percent a year.”  An artificial stimulus like this might work temporarily but then it ends and we’re back where we started.  We need a self-generating stimulus that will keep going indefinitely on its own.  How do we accomplish this?
The answer should be obvious.  We do it by stimulating the private sector to take more risk in order to generate more profits. In the process they will hire more employees and boost the economy.
How do we motivate the private sector?  By lowering tax rates and loosening the regulations which stifle growth.  Closing tax loopholes and lowering deductions (which will raise revenue to offset the lower tax rates) has the added benefit of attacking the corporate cronyism which everyone deplores.
We really do need to put first things first.  If we can jump start the economy by motivating the private sector to invest and grow, we will have more tax revenue to spend on new and expanded government programs as well as shrinking the federal deficit.
Why is this so hard for so many people to understand?

Is It Mean Spirited to Cut Food Stamps?

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, columnist William Galston writes “In Defense of Food Stamps” that “food stamps reach their intended targets, poor and near-poor Americans. The large increase in the program’s cost over the past decade mostly reflects worsening economic conditions rather than looser eligibility standards.  Since 2000 the number of individuals in poverty has risen to 46.5 million from 31.6 million.”
Mr. Galston also states that “the number of able-bodied adults without dependents receiving benefits under the food stamp program has risen to nearly 5.5 million from under 2 million since 2008 even as work requirements for those individuals have been relaxed.  Here the critics have a case: the federal government should reconsider the waivers of current requirements it has extended to 44 states and the District of Columbia and it should consider toughening those standards.”
Congressional Republicans have proposed cutting $40 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years, or $4 billion per year.  Since the total food stamp budget is $80 billion per year, this amounts to a 5% cut.  And this 5% cut is directed precisely at those 5.5 million able-bodied adults without dependents.  Expecting these people to find a job, even if minimum wage, in return for receiving food stamps, is not asking too much.  It is really just “tough love” more than anything else.
Putting a substantial portion of these 5.5 million able bodied adults back to work would also be a big boost to the economy.  One of the biggest drags on the economy at the present time is the low labor participation rate which has dropped from about 66% to 63% since the recession began in 2008-2009.
Trying to make the food stamp program more cost effective is really just an example of what should be done across all programs of the federal government, routinely, as a matter of sound operating procedures.  It is unfortunate that ideology and political partisanship get in the way of such common sense!

When Will Young Obama Supporters Wake Up and See the Light?

Yesterday’s weekend interview in the Wall Street Journal with money manager Stanley Druckenmiller, “How Washington Really Redistributes Income”, vividly illustrates how disastrous Obama economic policy has been for the young people who form the core of his coalition.  “High unemployment is paired with exploding debt that they will have to finance whenever they eventually find jobs.”
“I thought that tying Obama Care to the debt ceiling was nutty”, says Mr. Druckenmiller. “I did not think it would be nutty to tie entitlements to the debt ceiling because there’s a massive long term problem.  And this president, despite what he says, has shown time and time again that he needs a gun at his head to negotiate in good faith.”
How about the “rat through the python” theory which holds that the fiscal disaster will only be temporary while the baby-boom generation moves through the benefit pipeline and then entitlement costs will become bearable.  Unfortunately for taxpayers, “the debt accumulates while the rat’s going through the python,” so that by the 2030’s the debt and its enormous interest payments become bigger problems than entitlements.  “That’s where Greece was when it hit the skids”, he says.
What is Mr. Druckenmiller’s solution?  Raise taxes on dividends and capital gains up to ordinary income rates and eliminate corporate taxes all together.  This is justified because it ends double taxation of corporate profits.  But, in addition, the people who run the corporations would be more incentivized to invest the profits in growth and expansion.  Ending corporate taxation also ends crony capitalism and corporate welfare.  All of this would be “very, very good for growth which is a good part of the solution to the debt problem long-term.  You can’t do it without growth.”
Bottom line:  we urgently need to rein in entitlement spending but we also need smarter policies to grow the economy faster.  Young people ought to be totally on board with all of this.  When will they wake up and see the light?

A Pessimistic View of America’s Future IV. The Age of Oversupply

 

Today’s New York Times has an interesting Op Ed column by Daniel Alpert, a partner at the investment bank, Westwood Capital, LLC, “The Rut We Can’t Get Out Of” .  It is based on Mr. Alpert’s new book, “The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy”.
“Hundreds of millions of people who once lived in sleepy or sclerotic statist and socialist economies now compete directly or indirectly with workers in the United States, Europe and Japan, in a world bound by lightning-fast communications and transportation,” says Mr. Alpert.
During the “Great Moderation,” beginning in the early 1980’s, with the tech bubble of the 1990’s and the housing bubble of the 2000’s, we could ignore this threat from the developing world.  But now, after the financial crisis and the Great Recession which followed, this huge new source of global competition for jobs and cheap goods is a drag on our recovery.
Mr. Alpert’s main prescription for recovery is to put the unemployed back to work “by any means, including big public sector investments to improve infrastructure and competitiveness.”  He would do this with massive new deficit spending, arguing that U.S. debt is not a serious problem in the short term.
I agree with his argument that the global oversupply of workers, money and goods is a huge threat to future prosperity.  Where I disagree is when he says that faster economic growth is more important than controlling deficit spending.
In my opinion, “America’s existential threat is fiscal” (Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane).  In other words, as important as it is to boost the economy and create more jobs, and this is very important indeed, it is more urgent to get deficit spending under control and to do this quickly.  We can actually accomplish both of these critical tasks simultaneously, as I discussed in my post of September 20, 2013.

What Is the Best Way to Reform the Tax Code?

 

In today’s New York Times it is reported that President Obama, “Obama Proposes Deal Over Taxes and Jobs”, proposes “a cut in corporate tax rates in return for a pledge from Republicans to invest in more programs to generate middle class jobs.”  Reducing the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%, for example, balanced by tightening tax deductions and loopholes, would raise additional revenue on a one time basis as companies switch from one tax system to another.  It is this new one time revenue which would be spent on the president’s priorities.
The President’s proposal has given a boost to Senator Max Baucus and Representative David Camp, the chairs of Congress’s tax writing panels, “Lonely Bipartisan Push to Overhaul Tax Code Finally Gets Noticed”, who are working together to construct a broad based, pro-growth, plan to reform the entire tax code, for both individuals and corporations.
Which is the better way to proceed?  What is the best way to boost the economy? Revamping only the corporate tax structure to raise new tax revenue for public spending projects?  Or by eliminating as many deductions and loopholes as possible over all in order to enact the lowest possible tax rates for both individuals and corporations?
To me the answer is obvious.  It is investment, risk taking and entrepreneurship which create the most jobs for the long term.  The best way to stimulate the private economy is with the lowest possible tax rates for all.  It is unfortunate that the President will not accept this basic economic truth and work with Congress in a bipartisan manner to move the economy forward and create more jobs.

What Is the Best Way to Help the Middle Class?

 

An article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Obama Says Income Gap Is Fraying U.S. Social Fabric”, quotes the President that “If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be.  Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should.  Income inequality will continue to rise.  That’s not a future that we should accept.”  He says that “I will seize any opportunity I can to work with Congress to strengthen the middle class, improve their prospects, improve their security.”
A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal, “The Inequality President”, shows with a chart that median household incomes have fallen from $54,218 in June 2009 as the recession ended to $51,500 in May 2013.  As the WSJ says, “For four and a half years, Mr. Obama has focused his policies  on reducing inequality rather than increasing growth.  The predictable result has been more inequality and less growth. … The rich have done well in the last few years, thanks to a rising stock market, but the middle class and poor have not.”
There are many things that Congress and the President could do to boost the economy if they were willing to work together and compromise.  Obamacare doesn’t need to be repealed, just modified by dropping the employer mandate which is a job killer.  Broad based tax reform, with lower tax rates, paid for by eliminating tax preferences, would be a big boost to investment, risk taking and entrepreneurship.  A reasonable compromise would be to use a part of the revenue raised from eliminating loopholes for deficit reduction.
But little progress will be made unless the President is willing to show leadership by rising above partisanship.  There are all sorts of ways he could do this.  One simple way would be to show that he understands the seriousness of the rapidly growing national debt by supporting some of the many thoughtful proposals for more government efficiency.
A large majority of people want our first African-American President to be successful.  But right now he is not on track to achieve this.