Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Brooksian Centrism

David Brook's latest column is entitled The Future of the American Center.

Brooks makes a good point in noting the following:

the coming Congress may not look like the recent Congresses, when party-line voting was the rule. A vote on an infrastructure bill may look very different from a vote on health care or education or foreign policy. This may be a Congress with many caucuses — floating coalitions rather than just follow-the-leader obedience.

Meanwhile, as Christopher DeMuth wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, committee chairmen may reassert authority against the executive branch. Trump’s authoritarian style represents an assault on the traditional separation of powers. He may end up energizing all those constitutional forms and practices he stands against.

What’s about to happen in Washington may be a little like the end of the Cold War — bipolarity gives way to multipolarity. A system dominated by two party-line powers gives way to a system with a lot of different power centers. Instead of just R’s and D’s, there will be a Trump-dominated populist nationalism, a more libertarian Freedom Caucus, a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren progressive caucus, a Chuck Schumer/Nancy Pelosi Democratic old guard.

I’ve been trying to figure out where we’re headed after this election, and I really don’t know.  Trump is unpredictable.

But then Brooks goes off the rails, in my opinion:

The most important caucus formation will be in the ideological center. There’s a lot of room between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism…

suddenly there’s a flurry of activity between the extremes…  For example, Bill Kristol and Bill Galston have worked in the White Houses of different parties and had voted for the opposite presidential candidates in every election for four decades. But Donald Trump has reminded them how much they agree on the fundamentals.

The most active centrist organization, No Labels, began six years ago in opposition to polarized, cutthroat politics.

Much of the rest of Brooks column sings the praises of No Labels.  

Simon Maloy at Salon wrote what is, in my opinion, a cogent rebuttal -- More bogus “new centrism” from David Brooks.  Excerpts from Maloy’s critique:

“We stand together against an alternative right disdainful of the traditions of American conservatism and a vocal left that blends socialist economics with identity politics,” Galston and Kristol wrote, echoing Brooks’ alt-right/”alt-left” dichotomy.

This is completely blinkered, so let’s set a few things straight. The “alternative right” is not defined by its disdain for “the traditions of American conservatism.” It’s a racist, white-nationalist, pseudo-intellectual agglomeration of cranks and bigots who now have a direct line to the Oval Office. Only by denuding it of its core evils can one even begin to draw any sort of comparison between the “alternative right” and the “vocal left,” whose disqualifying sins apparently include pushing for universal health care and advocating on behalf of those marginalized by the political system...

No Labels and the rest of the centrist bleaters will instead celebrate the transparently false promises of a balanced budget that will surely attend all this ideological warfare... Toothless centrism appeals exclusively to “retired establishment types,” financiers and “think-tank johnnies” precisely because it is divorced from practical concerns: When you don’t have to worry about rising health insurance premiums or unaffordable mortgage payments, it’s easier to think of a balanced federal budget as the greatest good that government can aspire to.

I looked at the No Labels Four Goals, and sure enough two of them are about balancing the budget:

  1. Secure Social Security & Medicare for the next 75 years
    Social Security and Medicare are not sustainable on their current trajectories due to the retirement of the enormous Baby Boom generation, falling birth rates, and rising healthcare spending.
  2. Balance the federal budget by 2030
    If the money we spend as a nation consistently outpaces the money we bring in, the burden of our increasing debt — including the interest we pay on it — will crush us.  Unfortunately, that’s where we’re headed.

In summary, Brooks’ advocacy of centrism seems reasonable enough, and much of it is intelligent and constructive, but he makes two serious errors, in my opinion:
  1. False equivalency between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.
  2. Counterproductive obsession with national debt.  See Socrates interview with Pete Peterson.

As a final thought, the Democrats have been played (taken advantage of) by the Republicans on the issue of the national debt for the last 40 years.  There is no doubt that the Democrats have been more serious about the debt, and it has cost them politically.  Reagan, for example, gave lip service to the debt, but increased it with tax cuts and big military spending.  George W. Bush likewise cut taxes while invading and occupying Iraq.  Obama was more frugal.  Trump seems to be well aware of the advantages of the Reagan approach.

People like Brooks genuinely believe the national debt is just like private debt, as do most well educated people.  It’s analogous to the widespread acceptance of the validity of the patriarchy based upon Biblical teachings.  Probably in 100 years my descendants will be bemoaning the side effects which have arisen following the otherwise positive realization that we’ve been guided by economic mythology with little basis in fact.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Liberals, Progressives, and Radicals

Here's a thought-provoking article that categorizes the left side of the U.S. electorate as liberals, progressives, and radicals:
Richard Kline: Progressively Losing.

Here's my slant on this:

  • Liberals are socially liberal while fiscally conservative.
  • Progressives see the need for continuous change to keep up with changing technology and its effects.
  • Radicals are militants driven by extremely difficult personal or community circumstances.
These are all reasonable positions, although I happen to prefer the progressive to the liberal attitude.

Identity Politics, Special Interests, and the Trump Victory

Democrats rallied around various minority groups, thinking this would guarantee victory as straight, Anglo whites are no longer a majority, but rather a plurality.  Add in a strong percentage of the white women's vote, and the road to victory via identity politics was clear.

But to many, including various minorities and women, this identity politics looks like special interest politics.  People are self-interested, and voted against the "special interests". Hence, Trump won. In my opinion, people voted in their perceived self-interest as opposed to against minorities.  Depicting the largely self-interested and politically apathetic class as racists and/or sexists didn't help to win their votes.

A better approach, in my opinion, is to aim to achieve specific economic goals which will be beneficial to the majority of citizens, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.  Here are a few:
  • government paid health care
  • expanded free education
  • job guarantee / "infrastructure" projects (put people to work doing socially useful things)
The right will launch vicious counterattacks against these proposals, but the great majority of citizens would stand to benefit from such programs.  The main line of attack will be that we can't afford these programs, and that taxes will have to rise to pay for them.  That line of attack is untrue.  Republicans have repeatedly shown that "deficits don't matter" (that's what Reagan proved, according to Dick Cheney).  Trump just got elected on a platform of blatant disregard for fiscal discipline.  He even correctly pointed out at one point that the U.S. government can create money to pay any and all debts. Although he basically gave lip service in other speeches to the evilness of the debt, it was just token acknowledgment of the Republican dogma.  Bernie Sanders' approach was similar.

In sum, propose good economic programs that all can benefit from.  Be prepared to counter false claims that the programs will require tax increases.  The deficit can rise, and voters have shown that they really don't care about the deficit.  What they care about, rightly, are taxes, government services, and inflation.  If we keep are eye on these facts, we can take back the presidency and pass some progressive laws.

UPDATE:  Here's what commenter stefan came up with:

Ten point agenda. We need to speed up economic growth while creating pathways to a broad-based middle class society.
1. Transportation- long range plan to install super high speed rail and upgrade regional transport throughout nation “highly reticulated vascular system”, rebuild roads, bridges, harbors, etc.
2. Communication- land-based broadband to rural as well as urban places “a completely articulated nervous system”
3. Education- federal support for state-based overhaul of education, beginning at the university level, letting state universities coordinate with localities “ a healthy neocortex”
4. Construction- lengthen depreciation period from 20 years to 100 years to induce higher quality, more labor intensive construction “physical exercise”
5. R&D- incentives and eduction dollars to foster technological innovation (?% of GDP)
6. Health- go to single payer, medicare for all
7. International- relax posture while trying to ensure peaceful coexistence “be friendly”
8. Taxation-use tax policies to suppress incomes above $5m/yr, enforce pay to play taxes for domestic corporations “recover balance”
9. Energy- upgrade grid and diversify sources
10. Domestic- protect civil rights, equal protection, and fairness

Thursday, November 10, 2016

An Optimistic Take on the Election

I don't like Donald Trump, but he is unlikely to follow up on his surprising triumph with a Reagan like transformation of government.  He is extremely unpopular among both Democrats and Republicans.  Reagan was a gifted orator and connected well with his audiences. Trump is a clumsy buffoon.  He was elected because people are upset with the status quo.

Hillary would have been a deeply unpopular president also.  That's perhaps not her fault, but she's just been a target for too long and has too much baggage.  In my opinion, the Bernie Sanders' campaign was a real surprise.  He might have been able to win the general election, but people weren't ready to abandon what had previously worked with Bill Clinton and Obama.  Now that that's over, the path is clear for the Bernie wing to provide a clear alternative moving forward.  Let's turn over the party to a new generation and reclaim power, while Trump struggles with the incoherent factions in his own party.

Compared to a more "respectable" Republican, Trump is better with regard to trade and war, in my opinion.  His position on immigration reflects popular opinion.   He is worse on the environment than most.  He is lacking in leadership and administrative prowess, which bodes well for Democrats comeback attempts.

So the Trump election is a bump on the road of progress, as our nation and world struggle to adapt to rapidly changing technological landscape.  It's a wake up call progressives need to lead on the important issues.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Election Post Mortem

My opinion, and I could be wrong, is the main mistake the Democrats made was in prematurely taking credit for and defending the status quo.  The Republicans are the primary villains, from my perspective, and it was their obstruction that kept the status quo from being more palatable to voters.  Instead of calling the Republicans out on this, the Democrats went overboard is claiming that the economy was doing well.  Another example of this was "Obamacare", which was a Republican designed program, after all.

I actually thought for a time that Obama would not be reelected in 2012 because of what I just said above. But Mitt Romney was an establishment candidate who didn't get his base enthused.  Whereas Romney was emblematic of the financial elite, Trump took the opposite approach by vilifying Hillary's Wall Street ties.  For all Trump's faults, he correctly judged the extent of popular discontent with the economy, in my opinion.

An argument can be made that Trump won with racism and xenophobia, but it's not that simple.  The Democrats, led by Hillary, played into that dynamic by making "identity politics" a big part of their campaign.  It worked for Hillary against Bernie (Bernie Bros were parodied as young naive white men), but backfired in the general election.  White men are still opinion leaders in many communities, organizations, and families.  Thus, they may have influence out of proportion to their raw numbers.

Here's an example related to the theme of identity politics:  Paul Krugman led the charge of Democratic economists in favor of Hillary.  Here he is in a June Op-Ed:
This is going to be mostly an election about identity.  The Republican nominee represents little more than the rage of white men over a changing nation. And he’ll be facing a woman — yes, gender is another important dimension in this story — who owes her nomination to the very groups his base hates and fears.
The question now is whether we double down on identity politics, or try to win based on broadly applicable principles and policies?  Of course, I think we should go for the fresh ideas to solve problems.  One thing I've noticed is that the old liberal opinion leaders have become rather conservative.  For one example, I recall Hillary's stance on "Obamacare", where she was clearly to tired to think of making fundamental changes and said as much. I don't blame her -- going up against the right wing noise machine for years would do that to anyone.

Monday, November 07, 2016

The Socrates Show, with guest Pete Peterson

Socrates:  My guest today is Pete PetersonAmerican businessman, investment banker, philanthropist, and author, who served as United States Secretary of Commerce from February 29, 1972 to February 1, 1973. He is also known as founder and principal funder of The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which he established in 2008 with a $1 billion endowment. The group focuses on raising public awareness about U.S. fiscal-sustainability issues related to federal deficits, entitlement programs, and tax policies.

Pete Peterson: Thank you Socrates.  The national debt is a ticking time bomb. As it says on the front page of our foundation's website, it is mathmatically impossible that we will ever be able to pay back our $20 trillion debt.  Taxes will have to skyrocket and government obligations such as Social Security still will not be paid.  Our children and grandchildren will be impoverished because we are spending above our means.

Socrates:  Bravo to you for thinking about future generations!  Surely you have their best interests at heart.  $20 trillion is a huge number, and as you say "it's simple math".  I did notice, however, that over $5 trillion of this debt is owed to other U.S. government agencies; i.e. it's money that one part of the U.S. government owes to another.  Wouldn't it make more sense to net this out from the total you cite?

Pete Peterson:  Even if you do that, the national debt is still an enormous $15 trillion.

Socrates:  Fair enough. Of that remaining $15 trillion, approximately $5 trillion is held by the central bank (Federal Reserve).  Shouldn't that also be considered money that government owes itself, and therefore netted out?

Pete Peterson:  No, of course not.  The central bank is not part of the United States government.

Socrates:  Well the president does appoint the Board of Governors, and 98% of the Fed's profits are transferred to the U.S. Treasury.  It was created by an act of Congress, which spells out its social purpose and regulates its means for achieving that purpose.  

Pete Peterson:  I'll grant that the Fed would have little incentive to profit from the U.S. government debt it holds, at the expense of its mission to serve the public interest, since those profits just go back to the U.S. government.  But still that leaves a massive $10 trillion debt which will bankrupt our grandchildren and retirees of the future. 

Socrates:  Yes, indeed.  As you say, the math is simple.  Some people do note that that the $5 trillion of debt held by the Federal Reserve was purchased by creating money out of thin air.  Why is the $10 trillion debt a problem if it can be monetized (liquidated) by the Federal Reserve in this manner at any time?

Pete Peterson: Of course that would cause massive inflation and we would be the same as the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe.

Socrates:  But the Fed has already monetized $5 trillion (through routine open market operations as well as the recent quantative easing measures) and we don't yet seem be in a comparable situation.

Pete Peterson: That is indeed something of a puzzle.  Well I have to admit that monetization is an option, as that is what we've been doing recently to the tune of $5 trillion.  But to run a government based on continual monetization will ultimately lead to debasement of the currency and a Zimbabwe like situation.  Everyone knows this.

Socrates:  Quite so.  Everyone realizes that taxes are necessary, and that there is a limit to the extent of fiscal deficits before severe inflation takes hold.  This is where the math kicks in, in trying to determine those limits.

Pete Peterson: Now you are making good sense.  I love math (preferably simple)!

Socrates:  Here is an equation that I've been contemplating.  Sovereign Debt = Money.  

Pete Peterson:  Ha ha.  Everyone knows that money is something you own free and clear, whereas debt is something you owe.  Obviously these are totally different.

Socrates:  But what about if you are the creditor with regard to the debt?  So money is something you own free and clear, whereas the debt you hold is also something you own free and clear.  The money is perfectly liquid, whereas the debt you hold is not as liquid, yet pays interest.  An analogy is that the money you hold is like an electronic checking account, or demand deposit.  Whereas the government debt you hold is like an electronic savings account, or time deposit.  They're two different forms of money.  

Pete Peterson:  You're blowing my mind here.  Everyone knows that government debt is bad because we the people, as represented by the government, owe others.  

Socrates:  Right.  But the other side of the government debt is that people or organizations in the private sector are owed that money.  Anyone who owns U.S. Treasuries in effect has a time deposit with the U.S. government.

Pete Peterson:  Whatever.  Don't the Chinese hold most of our Treasuries, anyway?

Socrates:  Yes, the Chinese and other foreign entities do own about $5 trillion of our outstanding $10 trillion debt (see here).  They buy this debt on the open market.  Because the Chinese have a huge trade surplus with the United States, they end up with a lot of cash (demand deposits), and exchange this for Treasury bonds (time deposits), so that they can earn a bit of interest.  

Pete Peterson:  Just as I thought.  We're deeply in debt to the Chinese.

Socrates:  A better way to think of that might be to say that the Chinese hold a lot of U.S. dollars because of our massive trade deficit.  Whether they hold cash or Treasury bonds is irrelevant.  The trade deficit is the issue here, and that is a separate issue from the national debt and fiscal deficit.

Pete Peterson:  Hmmm.  I guess that makes sense.  But I'll have to think about it some more because that doesn't jibe with the usual narrative.

Socrates:  Fair enough.  I'll wait while you think........

Pete Peterson:  Ok.  I'm ready to continue.  I guess it makes sense that the Chinese will hold a lot of our dollars if they accept dollars for their exports, and have a lot more exports as compared to the dollars they need to spend on imports.  This doesn't have anything directly to do with the U.S. fiscal deficit, but rather is because of global trade practices.

Socrates:  I'm glad we can agree on some of these issues.  You're okay, Pete.

Pete Peterson:  You're not so bad yourself, Soc.  So, getting back to the debt as opposed to the money supply, I am beginning to see that there are similarities.  And that would explain why we didn't get any more inflation when we "monetized the debt".  We just exchanged one form of money for another -- demand deposits for time deposits.

Socrates:  Yes.  You've been listening!

Pete Peterson:  But I would have thought that people would spend more when their assets were in demand deposits (cash) as opposed to time deposits (U.S. Treasury bonds).  After all, you can't spend bonds directly.  The duration of the bonds forces people to save.

Socrates:  It turns out that U.S. bonds are the most liquid assets in the world (after cash).  You can exchange them for cash any time at a market rate.  U.S. Treasury bonds are also the gold standard as collateral for loans.  U.S. Treasury bonds serve much the same function as gold did back in the days of the gold standard.

Pete Peterson:  No way! 

Socrates:  At any rate, no one would forego a purchase because they held U.S. bonds instead of cash.  It is a trivial matter to exchange your bonds for cash and make the purchase.  So that's why there has been no increase in inflation as the Fed has monetized debt.

Pete Peterson:  I've got to admit that answers a question that has been puzzling me.  So even though we've liquidated $5 trillion of "debt" by exchanging money for U.S. bonds, that hasn't really affected the overall money supply, which includes demand deposits (U.S. currency and checking accounts) and time deposits (U.S. bonds).  So the total amount of outstanding "debt" is not really the important figure in the math.  You've got to consider the money and the "debt" together.

Socrates:  That's right. It's still fairly simple, right?  Whether the government finances deficit spending by creating money or interest-bearing bonds doesn't really matter that much.  The key is the annual deficit, not the form of IOU (demand deposit or time deposit), spent into the economy.

Pete Peterson:  Right.  Thanks for reminding me of my main concern.  We shouldn't have any annual fiscal deficits.  

Socrates:  Well, if we didn't have fiscal deficits, we wouldn't have any government money.  That's another important part of the math.  

Pete Peterson:  Whoa!  Everybody knows we should balance the budget, yet we never do.

Socrates:  Balancing the budget is not a reasonable goal, and few countries ever do.  As I said, we wouldn't have any government money if the government didn't spend more into the economy each year than it collects in taxes.

Pete Peterson:  Come to think of it, where does money come from in the first place?

Socrates:  Now you're getting it.  U.S. dollars come from the U.S. government, or its authorized agents, the commercial banks.  Commercial banks also create U.S. dollars, but these are offset by obligations to pay back the dollars.  We can discuss the banking system later, if you're interested.  The bottom line is that the private sector's net money all comes from fiscal deficits. 

Pete Peterson:  Supposing for a second that I accept this, then the crucial math regarding future inflation relates the size of an annual government deficit to the size of the economy.  Some increase in the money supply each year is appropriate for a growing real economy.  

Socrates:  Exactly right.  And speaking of the real economy, that is what we need to consider with regard to the health of future generations.  What will matter to my grandchildren is the civil society, infrastructure, and productive capacity they inherit.  

Pete Peterson:  So by spending less (or taxing more), we could actually be impoverishing the world of our grandchildren, if we neglect our environmental, technological, and human capital?

Socrates: Right again.  Do you think it will matter to future generations if the amount of money (cash + bonds) in circulation is $50 trillion or $100 trillion?

Pete Peterson:  It shouldn't make a difference.  Rather, it is real wealth -- productive capacity, strong civil institutions, a healthy environment, healthy and well educated people -- that will matter. 

Socrates: I couldn't have said it better myself.

Pete Peterson:  But I worry about the distribution of financial wealth.  Aren't we promising too many entitlements to seniors and others who won't be working?  As baby boomers retire, this non-productive part of the population will become a larger burden on those who do work.

Socrates: Right. This is a legitimate concern.  Personally, I'm in favor of promising a decent living to future retirees at government expense.  At best, this will stimulate the economy and provide better job opportunities with higher compensation for future workers as seniors consume relatively more goods and services.  At worst, it will cause inflation as workers are unable to keep up with the demand from seniors.  My best guess is that the best case is more likely than the worst case, as increasing productivity and technological advances eliminate many of the old jobs.

Pete Peterson:  We'll know on that fateful day in 2035 when the Social Security Trust Fund is depleted (according to the most recent forecast).  

Socates:  Right.  My best guess is that we'll do what we currently do with the general government running a deficit, and that is nothing other than continue to pay the bills and occasionally extend the debt ceiling.  If inflation becomes a problem, the future can deal with it at that time by lowering the deficit.  But there is nothing in the math that guarantees inflation in 2035, anymore than our current deficit guarantees inflation.  Demographics are certainly a factor, but so are many more variables including productivity, international trade, sustainable technology, and the state of our human capital.

Pete Peterson: I'll have to ponder this now that I realize that government debt is essentially the same as government money, and that the total is less important than how it is distributed.  

Socrates:  The ownership society of the last 35 years has resulted in a large change in the distribution of income from workers to owners of capital.  You could say that workers have earned their promised social security payments, and that we should look elsewhere if distribution of wealth is our concern.

Pete Peterson: Fair enough.  I will feel better knowing that my grandchildren won't have to worry about me, and my foundation's employees, eating cat food when we retire.

Socrates:  Right.  The math isn't really so simple, I'm afraid. 

Pete Peterson:  I guess math isn't my strong suit after all.  I overstated the actual "national debt" by 100%, incorrectly including the debt that one part of the government owes to another.  I would never make such a mistake in valuing my personal net worth.  I compounded that error by failing to notice the convertibility between the supposed debt and money.  They are interchangeable, and that has been demonstrated in recent years as $5 trillion of the "debt" has been converted to money without appreciable effect upon the economy.  I've confused national wealth, which is best expressed in terms of real assets, with financial numbers on a balance sheet.  And, finally, I've framed the real distributional issues in such a way that retirees are to be seen as the problem, while ignoring other distributional factors. 

Socrates:  Your basic mistake is an example of the fallacy of composition.  

Pete Peterson:  What's that?

Socrates:  The fallacy of composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole. You are assuming that a currency issuing government must balance its budget, just like the constituent families and businesses. At our individual, private sector, levels, we must balance our budgets, or ultimately go bankrupt. At the national level, where we can create money as needed out of nothing, the real effects on society are what we should be considering.

Pete Peterson:  Even if I buy that, we still have to worry about being in debt to China, right?

Socrates: Yes, our foreign debt could be a problem, especially if it's denominated in something other than the U.S. dollar.  So I agree that we don't want to leave future generations with a society which chronically needs more from the rest of world than we can give back.  But that has little to do with our fiscal budget and rather is a function of our trade balance.  

Pete Peterson:  Can we just leave it there for now?

Socrates: Absolutely,  It's been a pleasure talking with you.

Pete Peterson:  Likewise.  Ciao. 

Socrates: Aloha.

cross posted at Mike Norman Economics