Welcome to “A Civil American Debate”

(This welcoming page was initially posted in March of 2011. It was updated in early 2014 to reflect our recent concentration on the economics of wealth and income distribution.)

The Economics of  Wealth and Income Inequality  

Go here for a chronological list of all posts addressing the economics of America’s most fundamental problem: the continuing and accelerating growth of income and wealth inequality, the decline of the “middle class” and the entire bottom 99%, and inequality’s causes and solutions. These posts describe and develop the essential features of the dynamic causes and effects of income and wealth redistribution in a modern market economy, with a primry focus on the U.S. economy. 

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Our Executive Summary on economics (April, 2011) contains an early look at our views on the American economy. These views have expanded considerably, are now more refined, and are accounting in more detail for changes in the field of economics that have taken place over the last two centuries. The essential features of America’s economic problems have not changed, but our intent has been to expand on the failure of the economics profession to comprehend how market economies really work.

Our discussions of other topics are listed on the Contents Topics page. We have left the following introduction unchanged from when it was first posted in March of 2011.

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Introduction 

When we started this project after the Tucson tragedy, we were determined to chronicle America’s past, identifying and discussing major problems, and hoping to help America find ways to work its way out of the current crisis.  By then, we were already gravely concerned about the results of the mid-term elections and a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Our plans to conduct a relatively leisurely series of fact-based discussions and debates quickly gave way, with the facts we are discovering and the current events that are unfolding, to a sense of urgency.  We now intend to provide a broad, fact-based information and analysis service.  We want to join others who are encouraging all Americans to get involved and stay involved in the political process.  Our primary focus for now will be on detailing the stunning economic and social facts and analysis that explain how we arrived at this crisis situation, and what can be done to turn things around.

Most Americans are probably unaware of how dangerous the current situation is for everyone but the very wealthy.  Large corporations and very wealthy people mostly have it their way in Washington, and through control of the media they are able to shape public opinion in ways that serve their interests.  We will show how they are hurting the American middle class and all Americans in the economic bottom 99% , and explain why major concepts in their self-serving ideology and propaganda are wrong.

Today the middle class is shrinking, unemployment hovers around 10%, housing foreclosures and bankruptcy rates remain extremely high, and adequate health care and education are falling more and more out of the reach of middle class Americans.  The middle class is in decline, and poverty is on the rise.  In September of 2010, CBS News Reported that one in seven Americans (43.6 million people) were living in poverty, up 8 million from August of 2004.  In sharp contrast, the rich have been steadily getting richer, and the top 1% holds the majority of America’s wealth.  This is nearly the same inequality in wealth distribution that existed in 1928, just before the beginning of the Great Depression.   Within the top 1%, a small group of multi-billionaires has achieved astronomical wealth, and they are now working to expand their control of federal, state, and local governments.  Their agenda amounts to an all-out attack on what is left of a dwindling middle class.  This grew out of disastrous policies started 30 years ago in the “Reagan Revolution,” but it is not what Reagan wanted.

The Last Two Years

After the Bush Administration ended with an economic collapse into the Great Recession and a massive Wall Street bailout, we could only share America’s guarded hopefulness that the newly elected President Obama could turn things around.  His administration appeared to stem the tide of economic collapse, stemming job losses and avoiding a deeper recession or depression.  Despite his party’s majorities in both houses of Congress, however, Obama was unable to achieve any real Wall Street reform or even produce much health care reform.

Chillingly, Congressional Republicans had become the party of “no,” openly opposing the President’s recovery efforts with filibuster after filibuster and revealing a political strategy of blaming him for the failure of those efforts. We would have expected everyone in Congress to want and to work for economic recovery, but we were sadly disappointed.

When in January 2010 the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v FEC that corporations had constitutionally protected speech permitting them to spend as much as they desired in election campaigns, a whole new level of concern set in.  Sure enough, in the November elections corporations and billionaires spent millions of dollars, often anonymously, in support of Republican and tea-party candidates.  Consequently, voters provided the party of “no” and its new tea-party allies with a House majority and gains in the Senate, insuring that Obama would not be able to advance his recovery and jobs creation agenda in the next two years.

Exit polls revealed that voters were mainly concerned about economic recovery and jobs.  Many had been persuaded that Obama’s policies were failing and that the new members of Congress they voted for would do a better job of accomplishing his goals.  The voters had been seriously misled: the radical right has no intention of accomplishing these goals.

Instead, the radical right immediately pursued its agenda of advancing the interests of America’s most wealthy people, in opposition to those of all other Americans.  Currently (March of 2011) the radical right seeks to slash spending for federal programs that benefit ordinary Americans by some $60 billion,  including funding for low-income housing, early childhood, Low Income Home Energy Assistance grants, community health centers, and other services for the poor, asserting a politically false and economically impossible “goal” of thereby eliminating deficit spending and reducing the growing federal debt.

These cuts would be counterproductive, serving only to eliminate 700,000 to a million more jobs, worsening the economy and increasing the deficit.   Closing the deficit, however, is not the radical right’s real concern.  They served notice in December of their indifference to budget deficits and the federal debt when they forced renewal of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Our  Mission

Too many people in the middle class and below, we believe, are not yet sufficiently aware of the dramatically increased consolidation of wealth and income within the top 1% of Americans over the past 30 years, and this group’s steadily increasing control of government and the media.   Nor,  we suspect,  do they yet realize how significantly that consolidation of wealth has hurt them economically.  We were not aware when we started studying these issues of how incredibly serious the economic situation had become, but we believe we have identified and explained the major economic consequences of the last thirty years of the “Reagan Revolution,” and they are stunning.  Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, among others, have convincingly argued that the radical right is leading America into another depression, destroying the prosperity and freedom of everyone in the economic bottom 99%.  We too believe that a serious depression is imminent,  but can be avoided if America changes course now.  But there is no margin remaining for political error.

Today a minority group of right-wing radicals within the wealthiest top 1%, which as noted has been given the right to buy elections, seeks to advance a very radical political agenda of privatization and corporate control of government.  This threat has emerged suddenly this year in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, where democracy and democratic self-government are now themselves under direct attack.

This site is dedicated to demonstrating the true gravity of the current situation. Within the various categories on this site you will find analyses and findings presented in bite-sized chunks, and we will be continuously adding more details and facts.

You will find this Welcome note both as a page and as a post.  A  Summary post, also posted on the menu bar as a page, summarizes our major conceptual conclusions.   We have also prepared an Economic Summary which contains our stunning conclusions about the effect of the “Reagan Revolution” on the economy over the past 30 years, cross-linked to the relevant posts.

We provide a Resources category listing recommended reading, action groups, and information sources.  Finally, we will develop a Recommendations category where we intend to post suggestions and discussions (our own and from others) about what the bottom 99% can do to turn things around.

Our most important purpose right now is to encourage everyone to get involved and stay involved until our lives, our democracy, and our American way of life are safe from the corporate attack.  We urge everyone to organize, join political action groups, learn about what is happening in America, learn the truth and broadcast it far and wide, as we are trying to do.  We can’t do this alone.

The Future Is at Stake

We especially encourage young people, the so-called “lost generation” that is finding it progressively harder to get a good education as funding and programs evaporate from elementary school all the way up to graduate school.  You are fully aware of what is happening to you: Most students like you are finding it increasingly difficult to get higher education without incurring huge debts it may take a lifetime to repay, and even to find jobs once they have their degrees.  Increasingly, only the very rich can afford high quality education.

We graduated from high school fifty years ago, and you can take it from us:  It hasn’t always been this way.  What is happening today to education in America is outrageous.  Among the most important freedoms in America are your freedoms to get a quality education, to provide economic security for yourselves and your families, and to find fulfillment in life.  Now you must work hard to preserve those freedoms. You all are the keys to regaining your freedoms and making sure that you will have a real future, so please get started.

Here is a recent tape of a political action by Coffee Party USA  that took place at Wesleyan University, to which all young people can (and should) relate.

The huge push-back in Wisconsin against the overt attack on public-sector workers and their unions shows that once they became aware of the sinister hidden agenda of the tea-bagger plutocrats, Wisconsin citizens reacted immediately and decisively.  Here is a video of a Wisconsin farmer explaining how Scott Walker’s tax-cuts-for-corporations and spending-cuts-for-people agenda will devastate Wisconsin communities.

All Americans in the bottom 99% must continue to support the people of Wisconsin as they struggle for justice and attempt to recall legislators and a governor that won election on false pretenses.  It’s not just about unions, and it’s not just about Wisconsin.  What happens in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida – anywhere in America – affects us all.

There is no doubt that the American people can defeat the power of the radical right, their wealthy patrons and their corporations, once they are aware of the truth and are galvanized into action.   Many progressive organizations and unions are fighting these suddenly very extreme attacks, and they are gaining in strength.

To be sure, the right-wing media has the ability to cause many people to act against their own interests.  But these people are in the minority, and we all have the power to ignore the radical media and disregard their propaganda and their distortions.  If we remain calm and confident, through hard work we can win this class struggle.  It is up to us.

As Michael Moore pointed out recently in Madison, Wisconsin, the 400 wealthiest people in America have as much wealth as the entire lowest half of the population, 155 million people!  But we all need to remember and stay focused on this: They don’t have anywhere near as many votes.  It’s the top 1% against the bottom 99%, so make democracy work and take back your country.

Please send our link to everyone you can.  And bookmark it for our updates! Constructive comments, questions, and information are welcome.

(We invite you next to read our Summary page, where we outline our major conceptual conclusions so far, and our Economic Summary.  Mike’s initial post, The American Bad Dream, reflects on the major developments that have affected his views and concerns over the past 50 years.)

ARC, JMH – 3/16/11

(Contents Topics)

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Trump’s Presidency and Our Economic Future: Part II – The Bitter Fruits of Misplaced Faith

 

On October 9, 2013, in a blog article entitled “Ignorance is Death,” I discussed the vast public ignorance about economics and the extreme danger inherent in GOP policies (here), I wrote:

The fruits of ignorance are truly amazing. In yesterday’s article “Tea Party and the Right”(here), Steven Rosenfeld points to evidence that the GOP will become even more extreme. Already, the GOP has parallel parked dangerously close to the edge of a deep ravine, and from there it desperately wants to make a right turn, thinking there’ll be a safe shoulder waiting just off the road surface. Sorry, but no: It’s a cliff.

America’s economic growth is steadily declining as a result of excessive income and wealth inequality. Consequently, the danger of economic catastrophe is significantly increasing.

The reasons for America’s gradual, exponential decline are extensively explained and documented in my book “Reinventing Economics: The Failure of Capitalism and the Economics of Inequality” (Amazon Kindle, May 2016). Here is a succinct summary of my findings:

  • High levels of income and wealth inequality substantially depress economic growth and, uncorrected, ultimately (and exponentially) lead to depression. High inequality is more than just a symptom of other causes – it is a dynamic process and the ultimate cause of depression;
  • Trickle-down economics is a cruel hoax. But not only does cutting the taxes of the rich fail to promote economic growth, restoring their income taxes to previous higher levels maintained between WW II and the Reagan Administration is needed for any chance of restoring normal growth. In fact, the entire tax system (including state and local taxes) must be sufficiently progressive in the aggregate to prevent growing inequality, or continuous growth suppression is inevitable;
  • The explanation for the association of decline with high inequality is straightforward: The velocity of money is slowed when it is concentrated in the hands of the richest people. With money hoarded or stashed in offshore accounts, transactions that result in production of tangible work product are reduced, as is the effective consumer demand required for income and growth;
  • Mainstream economics has suppressed the essential components of this reality by ignoring the tautological Quantity Theory of Money spelled out by the American economist Irving Fisher in 1911, and by marginalizing the enormously important “principle of effective demand” developed by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in 1935. The warning by American economist Simon Kuznets in 1955 that the distribution of income and wealth is crucial to growth has also since been ignored;
  • By the 1960s, when I first studied economics, the economics profession had already fallen into the hands of neoclassical ideologues like Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman and their predecessors. Since then, the economics profession has trained several generations of economists to believe in the virtues of personal wealth maximization, couching theory in terms of incorrect concepts of “efficiency” and “equilibrium” that cannot successfully be related to aggregate economic performance, and that lead to no end of confused thinking;
  • By reinterpreting the thinking of the original classical economists – especially Adam Smith, David Ricardo, T.R. Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Henry George – and demonizing the work, in particular, of Karl Marx and Henry George, all progress in the investigation of inequality and growth was soon banished from the profession;
  • The underlying premise of neoclassical thinking, which was adamantly challenged by Keynes, is that economies will automatically recover, within a reasonable period of time, from a recession or depression. This pernicious misconception silently persists however, distorting economic policy, exacerbating a high level of confusion, and obscuring understanding of the continuing failure of the United States and much of the rest of the developed world to fully recover from the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession;

The details are all spelled out in my book, but suffice it to say here that the relationships between taxation and the distribution of income and wealth, and between income and wealth distribution and economic health, have been steadfastly suppressed and denied by mainstream economics.  This incredible corruption of “political economy” has both justified and encouraged the culture of tax avoidance by the rich, and badly damaged the institutions of democracy and freedom. It has resulted in a terrifying level of resource misallocation. American billionaires and corporate rulers have, for the most part, refused to address, or even admit, the serious social and environmental crises that confront and will soon overwhelm all of humanity.

The evidence is everywhere, and the effects associated with this economic and social decline dominated this last presidential election. Voters are increasingly aware that “something is wrong” fundamentally with the system. Many want to leave the country in despair, to flee a Trump administration that predictably, in pursuing the interests of the wealthy, will worsen everyone else’s well-being. Most of us cannot or do not wish to leave, however. Giving up on America, in my view, amounts to giving up on the future of civilization. So, where do we start?

To begin, you don’t have to be an economist to know that trickle down doesn’t work. And we can begin to understand (along with a number of our leaders, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Robert Reich) that the consequences of prolonged inequality growth have turned out to be far more serious than anyone could have imagined. In his first Op-ed statement since the election (“Where the Democrats Go From Here,” Op-ed, New York Times, 10/11/2016, here) Sanders highlighted the gravity of the situation:

Over the last 30 years, too many Americans were sold out by their corporate bosses. They work longer hours for lower wages as they see decent paying jobs go to China, Mexico or some other low-wage country. They are tired of having chief executives make 300 times what they do, while 52 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent. Many of their once beautiful rural towns have depopulated, their downtown stores are shuttered, and their kids are leaving home because there are no jobs — all while corporations suck the wealth out of their communities and stuff them into offshore accounts.

Working Americans can’t afford decent, quality child care for their children. They can’t send their kids to college, and they have nothing in the bank as they head into retirement. In many parts of the country they can’t find affordable housing, and they find the cost of health insurance much too high. Too many families exist in despair as drugs, alcohol and suicide cut life short for a growing number of people.

And he took the high road, as he had to, in serving notice of the continuing vitality of his political revolution, a revolution that will ultimately prove to be a key factor in the quality of our future and in our survival:

I will keep an open mind to see what ideas Mr. Trump offers and when and how we can work together. Having lost the nationwide popular vote, however, he would do well to heed the views of progressives. If the president-elect is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families, I’m going to present some very real opportunities for him to earn my support.

Let’s rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of well-paying jobs. Let’s raise the minimum wage to a living wage, help students afford to go to college, provide paid family and medical leave and expand Social Security. Let’s reform an economic system that enables billionaires like Mr. Trump not to pay a nickel in federal income taxes. And most important, let’s end the ability of wealthy campaign contributors to buy elections.

Of course, neither Bernie Sanders nor any of the rest of us can reasonably expect the Republican Party to suddenly abandon its entire agenda overnight. And, as discussed in “Part I” of this post, thoughtful commentators like Eugene Robinson, though not hopeful, also appreciate that our new president-elect brings to the White House considerable uncertainty about his future intentions and about whether, and how, the office will change him. I have believed that for America to work its way out of this mess in the near future, plutocratic billionaires will have to realize in advance that the complete economic collapse – the inevitable result of continuing, unabated inequality growth – would wipe out their own corporate empires and accumulated fortunes while they watched the world descend into anarchy. But I’m afraid most of them are far too myopic for that.

The refusal of American corporations and billionaires to accept the urgency of action to counter global warming has to be high on our list of concerns. To be sure, there are still perhaps another five or six decades before we will see the major effects of global warming fully mature, but by then it will be too late. Urgent action is needed today to limit the damage. Meanwhile, urgent action is also required to address a host of other serious social and environmental concerns, and all of us must adjust our own thinking and behavior to make that happen. Now that the three-ring election is over, all Americans, especially our politicians, our educators, and our media, must do some serious soul searching, and reflect on the fundamental truth that we are all in this together. There is no other path to an acceptable outcome.

The Anatomy of Our Crisis

An economic collapse, on the current path, will occur well before the most serious damage from climate change sets in, and at that point we’ll be in a real pickle: a depression will end virtually any chance of constructive action. The danger of such a collapse is real and growing. The first step in countering that danger is to correct some fatally confused thinking that dominates mainstream economics. So-called “liberal” economists, headed by Paul Krugman, argue that the federal government should expand its borrowing endlessly, and could do so without ill effect. But this is dead wrong, and the idea gets worse when compounded with Trump’s adoption of GOP trickle-down taxation policy.

The Debt Bubble Problem

As discussed in my book, there are increasingly vocal warnings from within the investment community of an impending collapse from another debt crisis, probably worse than the Crash of 2008. Chief among those issuing the warnings are conservative and even libertarian politicians and investment advisors. I cited Harry Dent, who argued:

With each new bubble, we reach higher highs, and then crash to lower lows. Its such an obvious megaphone pattern that I’m not sure how anyone could miss it.

I also cited Porter Stansberry, who emphasizes the decline of the dollar and predicts a major currency crisis:

Our government has embarked on a gross, out-of-control experiment, expanding the money supply 400% in just six years, and more than doubling the national debt since 2006. * * * Sometime in the next few years we will experience a “new” crisis of epic proportions. * * * We’re going to have a major stock market crash – and it will be worse than the one we experienced seven years ago.

The Velocity of Money and the QTM

Just a few days after the election, an old advertisement from Bill Bonner that had previously escaped my attention, dating back to June of 2015, mysteriously arrived by e-mail.  His presentation is available on the internet (Bill Bonner, “Urgent Public Announcement,” YouTube, 6/12/2015, here). I almost didn’t listen to it, knowing that it was a marketing device and that Bonner would save the secret of his successful career until the very end, but my curiosity got the best of me and I played it. When he got to the end, I was completely surprised by his revelation.

Bill Bonner, like the others, expects a major financial crisis in the near future – so much so that he has revealed the secret of his personal success in investments and headed for the hills. Unlike the others, however, his barometer is the velocity of money! He pointed to the St. Louis Fed’s records showing a steady decline in the velocity of money in recent years. The reason for concern with this indicator, of course, is that when money moves more slowly there are fewer transactions and less income. When as in recent years the money supply has been rapidly expanded, he also observed, there’s a lot more outstanding debt, so bursting bubbles will cause greater damage.

There it was, buried deep in investment advisory archives  — confirmation that at least one other professional had noticed the phenomenon that had become the crucial backbone of my new “distributional macroeconomics” – the long ignored Quantity Theory of Money. Bonner did not describe a full-blown QTM, mind you, but the functional essence of it is there. And – this is important – his perspective was derived from actual real-world experience, not from fanciful ideological constructs.   

I too have seen another financial catastrophe looming on the horizon, but unlike any of these investment advisors, whose job is essentially to predict the future viability of investments for their wealthy clients, I reached that conclusion from the bottom up, by investigating the implications of income and wealth inequality. Like me, these guys are all very apprehensive about our economic future. In fact, they appear to feel that the game is almost up – they are openly revealing the secrets of their trade, as they scramble to try to find safe havens for their clients’ money.

We really cannot predict how soon the next crash will come, at this point, but it is becoming crystal clear that better forecasting will be possible when forecasters begin to focus on the velocity of money (as I said in my book), and on the implications of inequality.

Upside-Down Economics

These investment advisors describe themselves as mavericks , almost certainly because their advice challenges  conventional theory so thoroughly that mainstream  economists think of them as screwballs and kooks. But mainstream economics has no answer to their concerns: Some major economists (Raj Chetty and Paul Krugman among them) have admitted that conventional economics does not understand the process of growth. In fact, it cannot comprehend either growth or decline; Keynes’s refutation of the fanciful neoclassical ideology, mentioned above, has been long forgotten. Worse, Krugman and other “liberal” economists are unconcerned about the implications of debt, even as the national debt approaches $20 trillion (See the U.S. National Debt Clock, here). Most observers, however, find the growing debt burden quite worrisome. (See, e.g., Mike Patton, Advisor Network, 3/28/2016, here).

The prevailing trickle-down idea that underlies Trump’s proposals to cut taxes for the very wealthy and corporations doesn’t even pass the laugh test: How can anyone expect tax cuts at the top to promote growth when, after 35 years of constant fiscal “stimulation” from massive federal deficits, we’ve ended up not with more growth, but instead with lower growth, an ever-expanding pile of government debt, and ever-widening inequality? Yet here we are, enslaved by this upside-down economics, with a new president-elect planning to apply it with a vengeance in the alleged interest of prosperity and growth. 

This confused thinking was encapsulated immediately following the election in the lead article in the business section of Friday’s New York Times (Neil Irwin, “The Liberal Idea Lining Trump’s Economic Policies,” The Upshot, 11/11/2016). When I searched for this article online, I discovered that it is actually an expanded and significantly modified print version of Irwin’s on-line article dated two days earlier (“The Trump Administration Could Test Whether Deficits Help the Economy,” The Upshot, 11/09/2016, here.) Irwin’s work amplifies the confusion on stimulation and growth.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the original, on-line version of this article:

Here’s a surprising conclusion you reach when you start to game out what economic policy will look like in Donald J. Trump’s administration: While many details of his policy agenda are likely to be staunchly opposed by the left, Mr. Trump appears likely to enact a fun-house mirror version of what many liberal economists have advocated for years: Keynesian fiscal stimulus.

Mr. Trump did not run a campaign with many detailed proposals, but he promised to cut taxes significantly, rebuild and expand infrastructure and maybe increase military spending. Together those moves would most likely increase the budget deficit substantially. That risks increasing interest rates and inflation, which could dampen the pro-growth effects of any tax cut and government spending.

If that turns out to be the policy reality of the next few years, it would be a real-world test of an argument liberal economists have made for years: that higher deficits could help end an era of “secular stagnation” and spur faster growth. Somewhat higher inflation would actually be a feature, not a bug, of the policy approach. (Emphasis added)

And here are the first three paragraphs of the version that found its way into print:

The financial markets are sending one message loud and clear about how investors expect Donald J. Trump’s presidency to affect the economy: with higher inflation and higher interest rates.

That shift, evident in big savings in Treasury bond prices since Tuesday, reflects a building consensus that Mr. Trump’s administration will pursue an economic policy reflecting a fun-house mirror version of what many liberal economists have advocated for years – Keynesian fiscal stimulus.

Mr. Trump did not run a campaign with many detailed proposals, but he promised to cut taxes significantly, to rebuild and expand infrastructure and maybe to increase military spending. Together, those moves would most likely increase the budget deficit substantially, but also lift the rate of economic growth, give the federal Reserve more latitude to raise interest rates without causing a recession and result in somewhat higher inflation. (Emphasis added.)  

Irwin completely flip-flopped between these two versions, abandoning his conclusion that the Trump tax cut and increased spending proposals “would most likely increase the budget deficit substantially,” risking “increasing interest rates and inflation, which could dampen the pro-growth effects of any tax cut and government spending.” Instead, he announced in print that “those moves would most likely increase the budget deficit substantially, but also lift the rate of economic growth.”

Version #1 is confusing, and not without problems. Two things are certainly true – borrowing more money will increase the deficit, and higher interest rates and inflation dampen growth. But version #1 ignores the important fact that interest rates have been near zero for several years due to our prolonged recession (actually an unacknowledged depression for low income earners), so the Federal Reserve has been extremely wary of increasing interest rates, properly worried that growth has been so low that anything (inflation included) that might further dampen growth risks more pervasive decline and a deepening recession. 

A reasonable way to understand the fact that interest rate policy cannot stimulate income growth in a time of high inequality is to reflect on two basic facts: (1) The wealthiest people and their corporations have such an incredible amount of excess cash that for any productive investments that might interest them they have no need to borrow more; (2) most smaller (and all struggling) businesses must rely on debt to get and keep a foothold in the economy, and higher interest rates can only make their efforts to compete more difficult. For at least two years we have been in a situation where raising interest rates would be doomed to failure and could cause stock markets that – as Janet Yellen has warned are already overvalued – to crash.     

But version #2 – the one that newspaper readers saw – made the incredible claim that the proposed tax cuts on the wealthy would actually promote growth. That is pure trickle-down nonsense, and Irwin appears to have fallen under its spell. The wealthiest people at the top will simply accumulate, exacerbating the problems we have been discussing.

This mythology reflects the almost unbelievable truth that mainstream economics, in its subservience to the interests of wealth, has managed to conflate the impacts of taxation on the wealthiest people with the impacts of taxation on nearly everyone else. This was accomplished by eliminating Keynesian demand-side economics from the mainstream playbook.

The difference is reasonably straightforward:

  • Tax reductions for the rich do not, indeed cannot, stimulate growth because they immediately increase income inequality and through increased saving and hoarding reduce the velocity of money: and with fewer transactions there is, by definition, contraction and declining growth;
  • Tax reductions for others, including and especially negative taxation (welfare) at the bottom of the income ladder, have the opposite effect: They stimulate growth because these groups spend a much higher than average percentage of their increased income. This increases the velocity of money, which constitutes, by definition, growth – not decline.

I urge every interested reader to study the two versions of the Irwin articles and the other references he mentions. And read Paul Krugman’s first Op-ed since the election (“Trump Slump Coming”? The New York Times, 11/14/2016, here), which reveals the connection between his thinking and Irwin’s work product. There, Krugman wrote:

[T]the specifics of our economic situation mean that for a time, at least, a Trump administration might actually end up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

Eight years ago, as the world was plunging into financial crisis, I argued that we’d entered an economic realm in which “virtue is vice, caution is risky, and prudence is folly.” Specifically, we’d stumbled into a situation in which bigger deficits and higher inflation were good things, not bad. And we’re still in that situation — not as strongly as we were, but we could still very much use more deficit spending.

This advice reflects, frankly, an upside-down “funhouse mirror” version of reality. It is reckless and will have extremely dire consequences. I hate to be so blunt about this, but I have been following Krugman’s views closely for nearly six years, and they have not responded to the increasing urgency of the situation. Missing is any appreciation of the dampening effects of the growing concentration of income and wealth at the top. Now we are running out of time and should be running out of patience.

We cannot hold people like Neil Irwin, Donald Trump, or even Paul Krugman, responsible for these misconceptions. Ultimately, the fault for all this confusion lies with the economics profession for covering up the truth about how economies really work. It has been a gradually worsening process of deception that has led modern commercial-industrial societies to the brink of disaster.

Fortunately, the problem would not be all that difficult to fix, given the will of nations to do so. The entire world economy, with a total of about $60.1 trillion of public debt today (See, the global debt clock, The Economist, here) will have to get together with the United States, which has a total of about $19.8 trillion of national debt today (U.S. Debt Clock, here) and work out protocols for raising tax progressivity around the world and getting inequality growth under control.

That would turn economics right-side-up again. Obviously, however, that is literally the farthest thing from the minds of Donald Trump and all his advisers, as he prepares for his administration. Which is why anyone with any significant understanding of how the economy actually works is scared to death right now.

        Here is a brief synopsis of the major factual and fact-based findings in my book, as they are pertinent to our current situation:

  • Income inequality, as demonstrated by the French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, is very highly correlated with the top income tax rate, and has grown rapidly once the top income tax rate was reduced below 70% in the Reagan Revolution;
  • The drastic reduction in taxation at the top effectively substituted borrowing and national debt for any given amount of reduced tax revenues at the top. Thus, federal federal borrowing directly financed the tax cuts;
  • Consequently, the national debt, which was almost eliminated by 1980, grew to over $19 trillion, and it’s growing exponentially;
  • Even with a stable distribution of wealth and income, wealth will continuously accumulate at the top, through the collection of corporate profits and other “economic rent,” so a sufficiently progressive taxation is needed to ensure stability and growth;
  • Between 1980 and 2007, reported top 1% net worth can be reasonably estimated to have increased by about $15-16 trillion, adjusted to constant 2010 dollars. The top 1% lost about $5 trillion of recorded net worth with the Crash of 2008, but most of that value has rebounded;
  • When reasonable estimates of top 1% wealth moved out of the country are included, a fair estimate of the total top 1% wealth gain between 1980 and 2007 is in the range of $23-25 trillion;
  • The major coup by our wealthy elite, accomplished by controlling the federal government, was to permit themselves substantially to lend money to the government rather than paying taxes. To that extent, the wealthy elite has shifted an almost unimaginable burden of debt coverage to less well-to do taxpayers;
  • The perpetual annuity thus created for the top 1% as well as foreign lenders is unprecedented in world history, and debt coverage is growing exponentially. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2014, the last time it presented such a projection, that the rapidly growing interest on the debt will exceed the entire defense budget (about $670 billion) by sometime in 2021;
  • CBO has acknowledged that the level of deficit spending will necessarily increase at least through 2026, with annual deficits reaching 4% of GDP by 2020, which CBO has only vaguely (and casually) conceded is an unsustainable trend.

The magnitude of these numbers reflects inequality growth that has completely transformed the American economy. The reckless and wholly irresponsible administration in favor of American’s wealthiest people, in pursuit of the GOP’s libertarian philosophy of shrinking the federal government, merely funds the massive growth of inequality. CBO projections have accounted for this austerity budgeting, but CBO has failed recognize or account for the shrinking growth caused by growing inequality. In any case, it should have long ago acknowledged that the federal debt cannot ever be repaid, except over many years, and only if the wealth transferred to the top 1% is taxed back into the public coffers, where it can be redirected to correct the growing needs of society.

In a few years, the federal government will have to shut down, or to begin defaulting on its sizable interest obligations. To the libertarians who would welcome the demise of the U.S. government I say: Be careful what you wish for. A default on the national debt will have enormous and largely unpredictable negative consequences for the dollar and for America’s standing in the world. Needless to say, the stock markets will crash at that point, causing panic to cascade around world, possibly crippling the entire global economy.

My guess is that it will likely capsize at least the most fragile of President-elect Trump’s widespread investments, even as other vulnerable consumer-based companies collapse. It might wipe him out entirely. Donald Trump will not like this very much: Indeed, it will almost certainly usher in Great Depression II. We are already nearing the brink of such a catastrophe, and on our current course, I fear, the only question is how soon this will happen.   

          Denouement    

I know that what I have described is a nightmarish scenario. Chances are you don’t want to believe any of this. I wish I didn’t have to believe it or talk about it: It’s an extremely harsh reality, and it troubles me deeply. But we live in a real world that conforms to its own rules, not to our prejudices, and we gain nothing by living in denial – a lesson that we can only hope Donald Trump will learn, sooner rather than later.

I am reminded of a phrase from a 2008 song (“The Great Correction”) by the thoughtful and talented singer songwriter Eliza Gilkyson of Austin Texas:

“Well the truth’s so hard it just don’t seem real.”

No, it doesn’t, and it never will. Now, with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, a great many more people are joining in my despair, struggling to find some reason for hope. My sister, now unemployed and living in semi-poverty in the West Virginia panhandle, recently told me she welcomes the inevitable “Great Correction.” Other friends, along with thousands of our fellow Americans, are thinking about leaving the country, but I expect that few will actually make it out: Other countries have problems of their own, and few will welcome the burden of additional immigrants from America.

Believe it or not, I see a possible silver lining here, and considerable reason to stay and fight on: Donald Trump is going to get an amazing and sobering education soon, and he may feel that he has too much to lose when things go seriously wrong. Unlike the more antisocial or even sociopathic members of his GOP clan, he may not be nearly as indifferent to the fate of his country and to the demise of the planet’s ecology.  And at least, if the next big economic crash hits on his watch, the GOP will not be able to place the blame on Hillary Clinton: The Democratic Party, or whatever progressive party emerges from the current debacle, will likely bounce back and, perhaps, make some real progress.

We have a long way to go before both economic professionals and the media properly understand the important relationship of tax progressivity to inequality and growth. 

JMH – 11/15/2016 (edited 11/18/2016, 11/27/2016)

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Trump’s Presidency and Our Economic Future: Part 1 – The Election’s Import

 

Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton has thrown traditional political analysis into fits of frenzied confusion. Although it is just beginning, analysis is already marked by high levels of fear and anger on the left, and of enthusiasm and excitement on the right.  Analysis begins predictably, on familiar turf: It was very close. Trump got more than the necessary 270 electoral votes (306, to 232 for Clinton) while Clinton carried the popular vote by a very slim margin. Turnout was extremely low, down from 2012, and alternative “third party” candidates attracted 7% of the votes, up from 1% in 2012.

It had been an ugly and contentious campaign season, marked by much turmoil within both major political parties. Almost everyone expected a Clinton victory: She had finished strong in the polling over the previous two months, and using historical polling error margins, two weeks before the election the probability of a Clinton victory was estimated as high as 90% (the Data Team, The Economist, 10/24/2016, here).  On the morning of election day, a Clinton victory still seemed quite likely, but as the returns came in that expectation quickly faded. Suddenly, an election expected to gravely damage the Republican Party turned into the virtual collapse of the Democratic Party.

Ironically, even as it greatly enhanced Republican control of the national government, this election failed to provide a mandate on any major issue. Media coverage for months had focused far more on perceptions of the perceived character and fitness of the candidates than on any of the vital issues of governance. Clinton was eminently experienced, but Trump had no experience whatsoever in government, and he displayed a haughty indifference, as well as ignorance, on many important issues.

How, then, did this improbable result take place? And what does the election of Donald Trump to the presidency portend for the future?

Overview of the Election

This was a contest between two unpopular candidates: Both Trump and Clinton “have been dogged by extremely low favorability ratings,” and “are more strongly disliked than any presidential nominee in the past 10 election cycles” (Abigail Abrams, International Business Times, 06/08/2016, here). Trump is a showman who, during the GOP primaries, displayed contempt for all rivals. Bottomed on his popularity with disaffected white males, his campaign systematically wiped out all opposition from more than twenty other GOP contenders. His raucous, arrogant and evasive behavior didn’t seem to matter to voters, however, even as leading GOP politicians declared their displeasure and promised not to endorse him. Trump prevailed with the GOP under-class, and ultimately in the election, by posing as a champion for alienated voters and claiming that he would “make America great again.”

Democratic and Republican voters alike have for years become increasingly disenchanted with the Washington establishment. Many under-class Republican voters, hurting financially, felt betrayed by the GOP’s failure to serve their interests. They wanted a change of direction, and Trump promised them he would provide that. Similarly, there was a high level of distrust of Hillary Clinton among progressive Democratic voters, who saw her as too conservative and tied to big business interests, and who responded enthusiastically in the primaries to the revolutionary Bernie Sanders campaign which took a strong stand against growing economic inequality and economic and social injustice.

Sanders came in a close second in the primaries, and Clinton shifted her platform to the left to accommodate Sanders and his supporters. The Democratic platform was the most progressive in decades. Still, a great many staunch Sanders supporters felt that the primaries had been rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton. Hence, many disenchanted Democrats and Independents apparently opted not to vote in the general election, or submitted protest votes for an alternative candidate, despite Sanders’ personal efforts on Clinton’s behalf. Many progressives  defected to the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein. It remains unclear how third party candidacies affected the final electoral vote tally, however, especially since Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson provided an outlet for Republicans who could not support Trump.

Despite all of that, even as the early election returns were being reported, the Clinton campaign still expected victory. But when key states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania began to fall to Trump, it became clear that the low voter turnout had cost her dearly. When Michigan went to Trump, the Clinton campaign suddenly –  and shockingly – was over. Why had she lost? Among the early theories for this sudden reversal of fortune were that the polls had been drastically wrong. Another significant theory is that FBI Director James Comey, a Republican, had seriously damaged her chances by his by renewed investigation into whether her private e-mails while she was Secretary of State had improperly exposed classified information. As reported by CNN (Carrie Johnson, 11/14/2016, here):

The FBI had all but cleared Clinton in July, only to notify Congress it had renewed investigative steps 11 days before the election. The FBI acted despite Justice Department traditions that direct investigators to steer clear of actions that could influence the outcome of an election.

Two days before Election Day, Comey ultimately concluded that a newly discovered cache of emails did not change the earlier result — no criminal charges for Clinton, the former secretary of state. But in a call with top donors last Saturday, Clinton’s team blamed him for her loss.

During the campaign Trump had boisterously proclaimed his intention to prosecute “Crooked Hillary” as soon as he assumed the presidency. Comey added fuel to the firestorm created by that belligerent move by renewing his investigation, only to announce two days before the election that the agency hasn’t changed its conclusion that that there was no basis for criminal charges against Hillary Clinton. Trump is now considering dismissing Comey, and will likely do so: Comey’s actions served the purpose of distracting attention, in the waning days of the campaign, from allegations of Trump’s sexual misconduct, his refusal to reveal his income tax records, and allegations of fraud and business misconduct,  so suspicions of Trump campaign complicity in any of this must now be discouraged.

Few people in the media seemed to care very much about any of this. In the final weeks before the election, the media busied itself with keeping track of public opinion, neglected to probe Trump’s fitness for the presidency in any depth, and seemed indifferent even to assessing what Trump intended to do as president: He was rarely even challenged on his evasive answers in debates. Widespread public ignorance about truly important issues, chief among them the economic malaise that had disrupted politics on both the left and right, remained effectively undisturbed

The Big Con

I was moved and inspired by Eugene Robinson’s article “America will be put to the test,” published in numerous newspapers including my local newspaper the Albany Times Union (11/9/2016, here). Robinson’s optimism appears shattered:

I wouldn’t be honest if I pretended, at this point, to be hopeful. My fear is that the man we saw on the campaign trail is the same man we will see in the White House.

Robinson added:

There will be plenty of time for postmortems about the failures of the Clinton campaign. * * * There will also be time for an autopsy of the Democratic Party, which is at a modern-era low. Republicans will control the White House, both chambers of Congress, most governorships and most state legislatures. The Democrats need new blood and new ideas – and they need to figure out how the GOP became the party of the working class.

And he concluded with this:

The old political order lies in rubble. Donald Trump is going to be president. The strength and resilience of the American experiment are about to be tested.

There is bitter irony in this assessment: Of course, the idea that Donald Trump floated that he was a populist candidate, or will ever be a champion of working-class interests, should have been rejected by all Americans, every step of the way, as absurd. Trump will indeed be the same man we saw on the campaign trail, and have always seen: a man who acts only in his own self-interest, a self-interest inspired by his wealth, craving publicity and attention. That means he will betray the trust of the voters who supported him.

It was the job of the media to fully vet this man’s character. After all, he was running for the most powerful job in the world! Instead, the media granted him far too much deference once he had won the GOP nomination. This allowed him to perpetrate his big con. No one seemed to notice that it is the same con that the Republican Party has been running since before the Reagan Administration, namely, the lie that the interests of the corporations and big wealth are somehow aligned with the interests of working and poor people.

Rex Smith, the editor of the Albany Times Union, quickly rose to the defense of journalism in an important editorial that everyone should read (“Journalists did their job. So did voters,” Editor’s Angle, 10/11/2016, here). He complained that the press is now being pilloried from the right, and defended his newspaper for exposing widespread criticism of the president-elect. He argued that in his youth he made a conscious decision to channel his idealism into journalism: 

Laugh, if you wish, at the notion that journalism is a worthy vessel of idealism. We’re “phony and dishonest,” the president-elect has said. And incompetent, some critics now add — either because we failed to recognize the breadth of Donald Trump’s appeal to voters, or because we never figured out how to cover his eccentric political style. * * 

So hear this, Republicans and Democrats and “nones” alike: I feel no shame. The choice my 20-year-old self made — to pursue a career devoted to truth-telling rather than one focused on acquiring power — still makes me proud. You may not like the verdict of the electorate, or you may not appreciate what you read about your candidate during the campaign, but journalism didn’t fail America in 2016.

Certainly there were flaws in campaign journalism. I wish cable networks hadn’t turned over their airwaves during primary season to campaign rallies. I wish reporters had grasped earlier the depth of the economic fears and political alienation of vast swaths of America, fueling the Trump candidacy. I wish some interviewers had asked better questions.

But by and large, journalists pursued their responsibilities ably. Reporters accurately and even bravely covered what happened on the trail, despite hectoring by candidates and threats from voters. Fact-checking revealed distortions and lies. Editorialists and columnists advanced arguments for and against candidates.

Perhaps most importantly, reporters fulfilled their watchdog role, exposing flaws in the records of both major party candidates. Mind you, a lot of voters clearly didn’t care. Don’t call that a failure of the media, though; it’s a choice of the electorate.

The editorial in the Times Union the following day (“Now, channel that anger,” 11/12/2016, here) urged  Americans to suck it up and adjust to the reality of the election results. Citing the rebellious protests that instantly materialized all over the nation, the editorial argued:

It’s as if many want a do-over. But that’s not how our democracy works. To deny the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s presidency is to stoop to the tactics he himself engaged in when he questioned President Barack Obama’s Citizenship. * * *

That’s not to say peaceful protests can’t send a powerful message to counter the nativist, bigoted rhetoric Mr. Trump embraced in his campaign. And they’re altogether proper in a nation that protects and cherishes free speech.

It’s not his presidency that ought to be the target of protests, though, but what he is setting out to do. For example: As Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress look to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, they must be urged not to harm the roughly 20 million Americans who now have health care coverage because of the Affordable Care Act’s state marketplaces and Medicaid expansions. They must be reminded that while, yes, premiums have recently climbed, Obamacare has slowed the rise in health care costs. Since Election Day, record numbers have signed up. And the case should be made for moving to a single payer, “Medicare for all” system — ultimately the best solution.

Too, those devastated by the realization that for the second time in 16 years a candidate won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College could urge more states to join the National Popular Vote movement, whose goal is to ensure that the Electoral College reflects the will of the majority of voters.

Finally, protesters and politicians sympathetic to their cause can’t dismiss the lingering pain felt by many working-class Americans whose futures have been dimmed by the loss of manufacturing jobs, compounded by the Great Recession, and whose fortunes have not returned with those of Wall Street.

It was their frustration that helped elect Mr. Trump. Any movement must seek to include them.

I know Rex Smith, and having a dedicated, principled editor like him in New York’s capital city is a blessing. But at this juncture, I submit, we all should to reflect more deeply on the intersection between idealism and realism:

  • Rex Smith should recognize that the progressive goals he supports have been frustrated at every turn in the road by the interests of wealth, and have been ever since Dwight Eisenhower warned America in his farewell address some 55 years ago about the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex. Class warfare is a reality, but both responsible mainstream journalism and polite politics throughout the country have consistently taken the “high road” by ignoring or denying it;
  • Donald Trump, within hours of his election, began the process of aligning himself with Paul Ryan and the Republican establishment he castigated during the primaries so as to take advantage of the agony and frustration of Americans victimized by our declining economy. Importantly, they are now poised to renew the very Republican policies that created these problems, as discussed below, evidently with Trump’s support. Smith seems naively to presume that Trump was not merely posturing during the campaign, and that somehow the victorious Republican Party can be persuaded to back away from any aspect of its draconian agenda. 

I wish all journalists were motivated by Rex Smith’s level of idealism and integrity, but they are not. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal scrupulously represent one side of this class warfare. Others, like Chris Matthews, may have once had lofty ideals, but now seem content to role play and revel in their celebrity. Opinions of such journalists are consequently often far too shallow. Recently Matthews suggested that “this guy” Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had tapped into the same reservoir of troubled voters, but that is simply untrue. Responsible journalism owes it to the public to explain the essential difference between the Sanders/Clinton proposal to raise taxes at the top and Trump’s proposal to significantly cut those taxes, as Republicans have done since the Reagan administration. This is voodoo, trickle-down economics, consistently disproved over the entire 20th Century. Still, much of the mainstream media, notably the New York Times, has studiously avoided addressing the taxation issue, a major component of the Clinton campaign, with any clarity.

Rex Smith would likely agree that the appearance of objectivity that most reputable media sources strive to maintain is not the same, in this complex world, as true objectivity. There can be no true objectivity when editorial constraints imposed by the billionaire owners of media sources like MSNBC and the New York Times unduly control what we all learn, and how we vote.

So, no, the media did not do its job in this campaign cycle. In fact, it failed miserably. Truly crucial issues like Wall Street reform, international trade agreements, and global warming got short shrift, as attention was focused on what voters are perceived to believe or to find more interesting. News flash – Most voters tend to believe whatever the media tells them. 

 “It’s the economy, Stupid”

This famous phrase, coined by James Carville during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, is certainly applicable to the 2016 election. Economic concerns were a major, driving force this election’s outcome. In the end, enough voters placed their faith in Donald Trump’s empty promise to make life better for Americans to tip the scales in his favor. But increasingly, voters distrust the GOP trickle-down myth and Trump himself, as they should. 

Much can be learned about voter perceptions from the exits polls.

            The ABC News Exit Poll

One of the major national polls was conducted by ABC News. Its very early initial report (“Election 2016 National Exit Poll Results and Analysis,” by ABC News Analysis Desk and Paul Blake, November 9, 2016, 2:10 a.m., here), contained these data on economic issues:

Percentage of voters who considered themselves to be worse off financially than in 2012: urban – 20%; suburban – 28%; rural – 36%;

Percentage that rated the economy negatively: urban – 57%; suburban – 63%; rural – 72%;

Which candidate voters say they trust to handle the economy: urban –  57%C/37%T; suburban –  44%C/49%T; rural – 33%C/63%T

The greater trust in Hillary Clinton on economic issues urban areas (a 20% gap over Trump) but deficit in rural areas (30% higher trust in Trump) is extremely significant. As the election returns came in, Clinton prevailed only in urban and suburban areas of the swing states.

In a period of ostensible recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and recession, the percentage of voters considering themselves worse off than in 2012 probably reflects the declining income growth we know is occurring. We have no income breakdowns in this data, but a significantly higher percentage of rural voters than urban voters both considered themselves worse off than four years ago and rated the economy negatively. These are areas where Trump usually prevailed. 

            The New York Times Analysis

            The New York Times analysis of a range of exit polls (ABC News, Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News), Election 2016, November 9, 2016, “Exit Polls Confirm Stark Divisions Along Racial, Gender and Economic Lines,” by several authors,  here, adds more depth to this perspective:

Voters expressed deep misgivings about both candidates, but close to four in 10 said they would be scared if Mr. Trump were elected.

These results were drawn from the early analysis of Edison research surveys of thousands of voters leaving the polls, and of telephone interviews with some of the roughly 47 million Americans who voted early.

Anxiety was widespread. Americans expressed concern about their financial well-being, their children’s futures and the fitness and trustworthiness of their leaders.

Three in five voters said the country was seriously on the wrong track and about the same number said the economy was either not good or poor. Two-thirds said their personal financial situation was either worse or the same as it was four years ago. About one in three voters said they expected life to be worse for the next generation.

This article also provides a cross-sectional breakdown of the indicated votes of poled voters by voter groupings and issues. For example, Trump carried the male voters 50%-41% (47% of all respondents) and Clinton carried the female voters 54%-40% (53% of respondents). This data, though hardly precise, does provide some interesting insights: On the question of “most important issue,” the economy headed the list of the top four categories:

The economy – 53%;   Foreign policy – 13%; Immigration – 12%; Terrorism – 18%.

Clinton won the votes of those whose top concern was the economy (52%-39%) and foreign policy (61%-32%), While Trump won the votes of those whose top concern was immigration (63%-33%) and terrorism (56%-40%).  Voters with higher levels of education generally favored Clinton, and (this seems surprising) Clinton was favored by low income groups ($50,000 annual income or less) and, narrowly, by higher income groups (all incomes over $100,000 annually). The middle income group ($50,000-$99,999), about 30% of those polled, split for Trump, 48%-46%.

It appears that Clinton’s experience and expertise in government more greatly affected the preferences of more educated voters, and despite his claim that his business experience would be valuable, voters generally discounted Trump’s claim to have an edge in fixing the economy.

Of course, the exit polls tell us nothing about the views of potential voters who elected to stay home. Those who did vote for Trump, however, apparently did so in significant numbers for reasons other than a perception that he would do the best job on the economic issues of greatest importance to them. 

The Impact of Fraud and Voter Suppression

The GOP has long realized that consistently winning elections and gaining control of the national government is a difficult proposition when it primarily represents the interests of the top 1%. It has advanced the old myth of neoclassical economics that what is good for the rich is also good for everybody else. As that myth has become more and more obviously untrue, it has resorted to lies an innuendo to mislead people into rejecting candidates they otherwise might well have favored. Having obtained the supremely anti-democratic decision from the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), billionaires have poured millions of dollars into election advertising, tipping the scales in favor of candidates they favor.

Today’s Times Union features a sobering commentary by Zephyr Teachout (“Overturn Citizens United, get rid of SuperPAC donors,” 11/15/2016, here):

People throughout the country passed laws that banned unlimited outside spending in elections. Then the Supreme Court overturned those laws in 2010, in a case called Citizens United.

The result? You saw too many negative ads in our congressional race. You couldn’t watch “Jeopardy!” without seeing ads. You couldn’t use Pandora without what felt like an infestation of ads. You couldn’t read a local paper online without a forced pop-up, or watch YouTube without having to see an ad.

Some of the ads were mine, and some John Faso’s, but the majority of the ads you saw were illegal six years ago, because they were not ads from either Faso or myself, but from SuperPACs. What could have been a positive engagement about two candidates with different ideas turned into something distasteful, misleading and unpleasant.

The ads took clips out of context and ran them over and over. In one ad, the SuperPACs found someone who looked like me and then had this body double doing things I never do.

Teachout was running for Congress in New York’s 19th Congressional District, adjacent to the 20th District in which I live. I witnessed this advertising barrage in the local media, and found the ads I saw, which featured the slogan “just too dangerous,” to be grossly dishonest and misleading. Voters who were unfamiliar with her were indeed being misled:

You wanted the election to end. You wanted me to stop running those ads. You wanted Faso to stop running those ads. You may not have known how many of them were not our own ads.

Ten million dollars worth of ads didn’t come from me or Faso, but from secret big dollar donors with no connection to this district. These donors had a stake in who won not because of any connection to the district, but because they wanted power over the people in it. Also, big SuperPAC donors usually aren’t like the rest of us — they often want tax breaks for the rich, they don’t like funding infrastructure, and they like offshoring jobs. The SuperPAC spending was particularly bad in this race, but it is happening all over the country, and the difference is Citizens United.

I hope at this point the Times Union editorial board regrets endorsing the Republican, John Faso, on the lame ground that he would provide balance and compromise in a divided Congress. Watch him over the next two years to see how often, if ever, he breaks ranks with the Republican majority. The important point here is that the electoral process in this country has become so one-sided and unfair that we no longer have a functional democratic process.

A close race for the presidency was all the GOP could reasonably expect this year, and certainly not victory, after offering one of the most unpopular, unqualified, and unprepared candidates in U.S. history. Frankly, it appears that its voter suppression initiatives must also have paid dividends. Just after the election, Greg Palast (who writes for Rolling Stone), reported on the Crosscheck system (here):

Starting in 2013 – just as the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act – a coterie of Trump operatives, under the direction of Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, created a system to purge 1.1 million Americans of color from the voter rolls of GOP–controlled states.

The system, called Crosscheck, is detailed in my Rolling Stone report,
The GOP’s Stealth War on Voters,” 8/24/2016.

In his latest post, Palast compared the Crosscheck purge list in Michigan, Arizona, and North Carolina with the Trump margin of victory in those states:

Crosscheck in action:  
Trump victory margin in Michigan:                    13,107
Michigan Crosscheck purge list:                       449,922

Trump victory margin in Arizona:                       85,257
Arizona Crosscheck purge list:                           270,824

Trump victory margin in North Carolina:        177,008
North Carolina Crosscheck purge list:              589,393

This stunning report, although its implications remain unclear, clearly deserves our attention — for if there was improper voter suppression in these three states, it is possible that the overall election was compromised, eclipsing the Florida circumstances underlying the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000) that awarded the presidency to GW Bush over another candidate who had won a majority of the popular vote.

Voter purges are sought by conservatives on the ground that people who move could effectively vote twice. However, if their names are simply removed from the voter roles, they are disenfranchised.      

So far I have found some additional evidence of a massive voter purge in North Carolina (Sean Holstege, Carnegie-Knight News21, “Do Voter Purges Discriminate Against the Poor and Minorities?”, NBC News, 08/24/2016, here). Here is the chart presented of the 2014 North Carolina purge:

This chart shows that less than a third of the voters were registered Republicans, and that over 40% were registered Democrats. More than 70% of the purged voters were either registered Democratic or Independent. Therefore, given that the Crosscheck number of purges was 589,393, the rough indication is that over 400,000 Independents and Democrats were purged, significantly more than the 177,000-vote Trump margin of victory in that state. We will never know whether Trump would have carried that state absent the purge. Nor will we ever know how accurate the North Carolina voter rolls were at the time of the 2016 election. The magnitude and one-sidedness of the purge, however, raise serious questions.

There is an organization dedicated to monitoring voter rolls that appears to be more impartial than Crosscheck called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). Eric has 21 member states, as of July 2016, and its mission is “ensuring the efficiency and integrity of America’s voter rolls.” North Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona are not among its membership. Its website (http://www.ericstates.org/) reports:

The states were inspired to create ERIC due to the challenges in maintaining the accuracy of voter registration records. While most private industry, and many government agencies, have updated their systems to take advantage of modern technology, voter registration systems remain largely based on 19th century tools, such as handwriting on paper forms and postal mail. The inherent inefficiencies in the system result in unnecessarily high costs, and make it difficult to keep voter rolls clean throughout the country. For example, 1 in 8 voter registration records in America contain a serious error. In addition, more than 51 million citizens, or 25 percent, remain unregistered to vote

I’m not yet prepared to agree with Palast that voter registration purges are proof that Trump “stole” this election, but clearly they helped him win. But we need to recognize that our elections in this country are not administered impartially, and are significantly tilted in the favor of the wealthy. 

The Upshot

The integrity of American democracy has been extensively compromised. Although interpretations of the voting data in 2016 will differ, one thing is clear: There is no clear mandate in the 2016 election, especially since many (if not most) of those who voted for Trump may have actually believed his purported populism. Nonetheless, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, reacted immediately, claiming that the election of Donald Trump is a mandate to fulfill the traditional GOP agenda. Trump’s transition planning so far shows no reason to believe that Trump disagrees.

It is tempting to accept the inference that voters whose incomes and financial well-being have been declining have rejected the claims by the Obama administration that the economy has been improving on his watch, and decided to turn back to the GOP candidate in their frustration. However, the exit polls belie this perspective: Clinton was the favored candidate on economic issues across broad segments of the voting population, and she campaigned on the basis of Obama’s legacy.

Regardless, for anyone to credit Trump with either the ability or the intention to accomplish the progressive results that Sanders, and Clinton campaigned for – an economy that works for everyone, not just the top 1% — would be an enormous leap of faith. The GOP represents only wealthy interests, and its radicalism has not abated. Now, Trump’s transition planning reveal and Trump’s comments reveal that he will almost certainly betray the promises he implicitly made when he pledged himself to be a president for “all Americans.” The Trump candidacy will turn out to have been a Trojan Horse, secreting Republicans into four years of uncontested power.

Americans, so greatly concerned about the future of our economy and our world, justifiably feel cheated and repulsed by this result. There is nothing new in these deceptions. We might regard these lyrics as a prophetic eulogy for democracy:

“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/ I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/But love’s the only engine of survival.” – The Future, by Leonard Cohen ( 9/21/1934 – 11/7/2106) 

In Part II of this post, we will take a look at how much economic harm will likely result from the Trump presidency. Stay tuned.

JMH – 11/15/2016

 

 

 

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The True and the Untrue: Reflections on WestWorld

Halloween 2016 has just arrived, to be followed in a week with a very scary election day. The impression that we may be choosing between life and imminent death and destruction is nurtured by the TV advertising from both sides. That this impression is not without justification has made this election season especially horrifying, and thus today’s celebration of Halloween seems scarier than usual, an omen of the horrifying day of reckoning looming a week further down the road. As we worry about their future, our own young children will be ringing our door bells this evening, exclaiming “trick or treat!” But to me, this is no longer just innocent good fun.

Over the last few weeks, my own sense of foreboding has been heightened by the remarkable new HBO series “WestWorld.” This ingenious series, which has now advanced to its fifth episode, forcefully thrusts into our consciousness darkly profound imponderables about good and evil, truth and falsehood, and “real” versus “unreal” at every turn. Indeed, what makes this series especially frightening is that its premises are concerned with the nature of consciousness itself.

WestWorld is a futuristic theme park located in the canyonlands of the U.S. West, a place where wealthy “guests” can pay huge sums (one guest mentions a $40,000/day charge) for a vacation interacting with android “hosts” who engage them in story lines written and monitored by “the Park’s” staff of employees. There are numerous story lines among which guests may choose to get involved. Each robotic host is programmed with a rich, complex set of behaviors, and a “back story” identifying his or her personal history in the old post-Civil War West. Story lines overlap, and unfold simultaneously in real time. Key hosts can be assigned more than one story line, and are moved around the Park almost instantly to fulfill their various roles. When a host is killed, WestWorld cleanup staff quickly retrieves the body, removes it to underground labs for repair and analysis, and the host is then returned to its world.

The memory of each android host is purged following each episode, permitting a fresh start to each story line every day or so, as if it is happening for the first time. In this fanciful environment, staff and hosts are virtually teleported from place to place, shielding the Park itself from visible evidence of maintenance activity. Park staff can also simply take an elevator to the surface and mingle, and can stop the action by putting hosts in “sleep mode” as they do their work. We are challenged with each episode to figure out how the whole thing works. The series begins as WestWorld operations start to unravel when memories of key hosts begin to survive the memory purges, and they begin to question who and what they are.

There is, of course, a corporation behind all of this, and as the early episodes unfold, just as the android hosts are beginning to develop new intentions and self-realization, we learn of conflicting agendas among the Park’s managers and directors, and potential conflicts with the interests of the corporate board of directors. We also learn of even more mysterious objectives for the Park pursued over 35 years by one of the Park’s creators and developers, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) along with his deceased partner, Arnold. A photograph of the mysterious Arnold is actually a picture of a much younger Anthony Hopkins, suggesting that Robert Ford may have been Arnold himself. Regardless, Ford has achieved god-like powers and control over his creation, and he confidently exercises that power.

Like “Game of Thrones,” this series has a talented, world-class cast. Among the main characters are the Man in Black (Ed Harris), Ford’s chief assistant Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), a rancher’s daughter Delores, a crucial protagonist among the hosts (Evan Rachel Wood), her erstwhile boyfriend, the gunslinger and bounty hunter Teddy Flood (James Marsden), a saloon madam Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her top prostitute Clementine (Angela Sarafyan). Among the high-level directors and operators is a corporate representative Theresa (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), and the principal Park guests are William and Logan (Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes).

The story lines and character roles are presented with some ambiguity, preserving suspense and intrigue. From the outset, it is obvious that this series presents a very advanced level artificial intelligence (A.I.), scarcely indistinguishable from the “real” thing. But it also raises the bar on A.I. fiction, posing an intriguing question that will pervade the narrative throughout the series. At the beginning of Episode two, when William and Logan arrive at the Park, a female host preparing William for his journey into the Park remarks, as he looks her over: “I know you want to ask, so ask.” William immediately responds: “Are you real?” The host instantly replies, “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” This exchange ominously raises deeper, universal questions we face in our lives: What is the nature of reality, and what is the importance of distinguishing between reality and fantasy?

WestWorld vacations offer guests the opportunity to really escape the humdrum constraints and evils of the “real” world outside the Park. But this theme is darkly foreboding, as “real” world evil, naturally enough, infects the Park. WestWorld vacations were always attractive to many who wanted a chance to kill other people, and in the Park, they could kill with little or no risk or consequence, because the hosts’ guns would not kill humans – only other hosts. In Episode 4, in a meeting between Robert Ford and Theresa to discuss his massive (and disruptive) Park expansion plans, when she admits to not liking the Park very much, Ford remarks that he and Arnold originally had a more balanced approach in mind for WestWorld story lines, evidently to offer more romantic or at least benign vacations.

Over the years, however, the dark side prevailed: As guests became increasingly dissatisfied with relatively benign interactions, the story lines became dominated by guns and killing, inviting guests to act out their darker fantasies. The Man in Black appears to be a good example of this dark tendency: He first visited the Park 35 years ago, but he has not returned for some time. Although he reminds us that he still enjoys killing, his mission now is to find the deeper truth or reality he believes underlies the Park.

The theme and plot line of this series marks a significant advance in the approach to A.I. and its philosophical underpinnings. A Sci-Fi junkie in youth, I was always spooked by the sinister implications of stories involving A.I., which I found at least as frightful as the typical Halloween ghost or witch story. One of the basic themes that emerged in 20th Century science fiction involved machinery possessing externally driven prescience and malevolent intent. One especially scary story was “Killdozer,” a science fiction/horror novella by Theodore Sturgeon originally published in Astounding magazine in 1944, and revised (just in time for my 15th birthday) for the 1959 collection Aliens 4. This is the chilling story of an eight-man construction crew building an airstrip on a small Pacific island during WW II. They uncover and open an ancient stone “temple,” releasing an ancient entity composed of pure energy, left over from a war involving sentient machines. The entity possesses the crew’s bulldozer, which proceeds to kill the workers. Three survivors ultimately manage to destroy the bulldozer, and presumably the entity. This horrific story was brought to the screen in a 1974 movie.

Killdozer may have influenced horror-master Steven King, who published a short story called “The Lawnmower Man” in the May 1975 issue of Cavalier and in his 1978 collection Night Shift. In this macabre story, a man (Harold) seeks to hire a lawn mowing service for the summer and responds to an ad for “Pastoral Greenery.” The man driving the company van, a hairy, pot-bellied fellow, is hired and shown to the back yard. When the mowing begins, Harold goes to his back porch where he sees the lawnmower running by itself, and the naked lawnmower man following on all fours eating the grass. The lawnmower chases and kills a mole. The lawnmower man then explains to the terrified Harold that this approach to lawn care offers substantial benefits, but that his boss makes sacrificial victims of unappreciative customers. When Harold tries to call the police, the lawnmower man interrupts, revealing that his boss’s name is “Pan.” The lawnmower chases Harold through his living room before brutally slaughtering him, leaving a strong scent of freshly cut grass in the air.

In those early fantasy/horror stories, ordinary machines are magically and terrifyingly bestowed with prescience, but they do the bidding of external masters. Artificial intelligence, however, implies a prescience inherent to the machine itself. Of course, the idea of A.I. is not entirely new to fantasy literature. In Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), an Italian woodcarver named Geppetto carved a wooden marionette named Pinocchio. Magically, the wood became animated, and Pinocchio “lived.”

The blockbuster movie “A.I.” (2001) takes this theme to a disquieting new level. In a future world where robots and androids are gradually developed to embody increasingly sophisticated programming, they begin to display what resembles real human intelligence. There is a social backlash to this trend, however, and a resistance movement led by Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) searches for rejected androids in a hot-air balloon that resembles the moon. Captured robots are taken to fairs where they are destroyed in front of jeering, irate crowds. One special android, however, meticulously designed by Prof. Hobby (William Hurt) in the image of his own departed son, is virtually indistinguishable from a real little boy. This android, David (Haley Joel Osment) also possess advance A.I., and comes to believe he is a “real” little boy. When his adoptive mother realizes she cannot keep him, she tells him the truth, and abandons him in the woods, where he encounters other robots fleeing Lord Johnson-Johnson. He hooks up with an advanced and convincing male prostitute android Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), the two are captured, but they escape destruction at the hands of the carnival mob when the mob is not convinced that David is not a real boy. The two set out on a hair-raising search for Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, which David is convinced is real and can change him into a real boy, so that he can return to his beloved mother.

The WestWorld series is the next, and perhaps ultimate step in the developing A.I. theme. This series emphasizes the disquieting tension we increasingly face in distinguishing between what is “real” and what is “unreal” (or non-real) in our lives. Intriguingly, in WestWorld we see both real humans and androids grappling with the same issues, further blurring that distinction. And morality is posed not just as a human question, but as a universal abstraction. Worse still, the nature of consciousness itself as a human attribute is challenged: A headnote at the WestWorld cast site states that this “futuristic park – which is looked after by robotic ‘hosts’ – allows its visitors to live out their fantasies through artificial consciousness. No matter how illicit the fantasy may be, there are no consequences for the park’s guests, allowing for any wish to be indulged.”

By postulating a very dangerous concept of “artificial consciousness,” this explanation goes beyond earlier literary explorations of A.I., addressing not just the nature of intelligence, but of consciousness as well. The intriguing suggestion here is that Park guests are transformed into an alternative state of consciousness for their entire WestWorld experience: Is this supposed to be some sort of shared dream or hallucination? I don’t think so. However, this reference to “artificial” consciousness clearly grows out of Ford’s reference in a conversation with Bernard (Episode 3) to Arnold’s intriguing hope to create “real” consciousness in robots, relating to a theory that consciousness relates to the “bicameral mind.”

Commenters have been quick to note the obvious origin of this idea – the 1976 book by Princeton Professor Julian Jaynes entitled “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” This point is discussed by Nick Romano of Collider, who has also endorsed the more sensible “game theory” interpretations of the Park’s interactions, suggesting that the Man in Black is not really a sinister gangster type, despite his rough demeanor, but is actually an expert gamer. Park guest Logan also advances the common-sense perspective that the whole WestWorld theme park is just an elaborate game, especially in his argument with William when he threatens to shoot Delores in Episode 4. The hosts are all just robots, he reminds his partner, that cannot really be killed. And, as the human characters are frequently reminded, it is a mistake to think of the hosts as “real.” Still, the idea is floated that Arnold tried, and failed, to make hosts’ consciousness really real, i.e., something more than robotic. Of the Jaynes theory, Romano writes:

“It essentially postulates that early man believed consciousness to be the voice of the gods, which we eventually realized to be their own instincts kicking in.”

But this conceptualization partially misperceives the Jaynes thesis. I have had the popular Jaynes book in my library since the early 1980s, and spent some time with it years ago. His intriguing theory is that in antiquity, well over 2000 years ago, there was a time when bicameral minds produced, inside the head, what appeared to be actual voices. A vestige of that phenomenon exists today in schizophrenia, for example, with the sensation of hearing people speaking who are not actually there, i.e., hallucinating. Jaynes’s thesis is that the bicameral mind once produced these “internal voices” for everyone, and that “consciousness” came with the breakdown of the bicameral mind.  This is not a straightforward idea, and it has been largely imperceptible to me. For most of my life, I have been inclined to equate consciousness with “awareness,” but that is not at all, according to Jaynes, what consciousness is:

“Subjective conscious mind is an analogue of what is called the real world. It is built up with what is called real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. … And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.” (p.55)

Thus, “consciousness” requires both biological (human) life and language. Our consciousness consists of established lexical analogues (maps) we have learned of the real world. What, then, is meant by the “bicameral mind”? Jaynes writes:

“We are conscious human beings. We are trying to understand human nature. The preposterous hypothesis we have come to … is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was conscious. This is almost incomprehensible to us. And since we are conscious, and wish to understand, we wish to reduce this to something familiar in our experience…” (p. 84)

Perhaps a metaphor of something close to that state might be helpful. In driving a car, I am not sitting like a back-seat driver directing myself, but rather find myself committed and engaged with little consciousness. In fact my consciousness will usually be involved in something else. . . My hand, foot, and head behavior, however, are almost in a different world. *** Now simply subtract the consciousness and you have what a bicameral man would be like.” (pp.84-85)

In discussing the evolution of consciousness, Jaynes hypothesizes that “natural selection may have played a role in the beginning of consciousness.” But, he cautions:

“I wish to be very clear that consciousness is chiefly a cultural introduction, learned on the basis of language and taught to others, rather than any biological necessity. * * * It is impossible to calculate what percentage of the civilized world died in those terrible centuries toward the end of the second millennium B.C. I suspect it was enormous. * * * It is thus possible that individuals most obdurately bicameral, most obedient to their familiar divinities, leaving the genes of the less impetuous, the less bicameral, to endow the ensuing generations.” (p. 220)

At this point, let me dispel any intention of appearing like Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) who, standing in the ticket line at a theater, and incensed by a conversation in the line behind him, suddenly blurts out: “I’ve got Marshall McLuhan right here…” and then retrieves McLuhan himself from behind a poster to explain to the flabbergasted man that his ideas are all wet. Consciousness is a tough concept, and I am sure there is more extensive knowledge on the Jaynes hypothesis among the series producers than I can claim to have. I suspect that the concept of consciousness and still more unfathomable notion of a bicameral mind that Jaynes advanced have gained more support today than the details of his theory about the origin of consciousness.

With respect to WestWorld, it is important to note that the producers have gone to great lengths to show that the lead character Delores displays all of the attributes of conscious mentality, and to contrast her thinking with that of her boyfriend Teddy. In an important conversation between them in Episode 3, she expresses a clear desire to get away from the confines of her world, and asks Teddy if he knows of a place they can go. He tells her that he has heard of a place down south, where the mountains reach the ocean. She asks why they don’t go there immediately. Teddy hesitates, conflicted by the goals he has been programmed to achieve. He promises to take her there “someday.” When Delores reacts negatively, he asks, “Is something wrong?” And Delores replies: “You said ‘someday.’ That sounds exactly like what people say when they actually mean ‘never.’” Teddy reacts, indicating he honestly intends to take her “someday… soon.” (This appears to be an oblique reference to the 1964 Ian Tyson Western genre song of that name.) He then rides off on his next assignment.

There are other signs of Delores’s true consciousness, including Bernard’s recognition that she is “different” and his probing of her intellect. In one session with Bernard she says, “I think there must be something wrong with this world…. Either that or there is something wrong with me.” This kind of thinking requires consciousness, and could not be performed by the bicameral mind Jaynes describes. Other characters  (principally Maeve) are emerging into conscious thought as well, evidently prompted mainly by the jolts they are getting as their memory purges break down.

The important point here is that these characters are all robots, so for them consciousness, which requires and grows out of biological mentality — i.e. “real” thought — is impossible. Even with the most complex programming to enable computers somehow to both achieve self-awareness and continue to learn from experience on their own, the crucial emotional components to thought (and language interpretation) provided by biological life will always be missing. This is, nonetheless, an imaginative theme, and an excellent premise for a science fiction/horror story. One exciting  potential plot line introduced so far follows on Bernard’s suggestion that if Delores can find the center of the mysterious Maze, the place the Man in Black is trying to find, she might be able to find her “freedom” –- presumably from her “unreal” consciousness as an android — becoming able to choose her own destiny. That possibility implies that Arnold must have come close to success, and that at the heart of the Maze lies the key, like Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, to obtaining “real” humanity.

What troubles me most about experiencing WestWorld at this point in time is its juxtaposition with the monumentally important election coming up next week. I’m not concerned that this fictional series postulates the physically improbable and likely impossible state of artificial consciousness. Nor am I suggesting that there is any sort of backsliding in this world toward the state of the bicameral mind, an equally impossible development. I am deeply troubled, however, by the extremely dysfunctional state of the results produced by actual human consciousness.

Consciousness is here to stay, but there is also a very real physical world underlying the “real” world of our conscious perceptions, and that world is being made more dysfunctional by our technology and our decisions. There are several problems here: Our attraction to artificial intelligence is leading us down a dangerous path, a  growing tendency to surrender control of conscious human activities to machines — e.g., vehicles that can drive themselves, and drones that can carry out preprogrammed combat missions. We seem even to be getting closer to computerized judgments on when and what to strike. Down that road, human warfare could ultimately be chosen and carried out by machines without the intervention of conscious judgment. Still, we persevere in that direction.

It is consciousness, clearly, that enables logic and advanced reasoning, yet I am among those deeply troubled by the extent to which the benefits of human intelligence are being squandered. Our society, inundated with fantasy themes and religious ideologies, seems largely to have lost interest in determining the underlying truths about our world. This has had a chilling effect on politics and democracy. Voters are attracted by the most superficial of reasons to candidates who advocate manifestly harmful policies. A great many people will be elected next week with the avowed goal of undermining government, or who deny scientific reality at a time when climate change is far too rapidly destroying the viability of life on the entire planet. Many will advocate policies that will result in a far less progressive tax system, inevitably reducing our economic growth and ensuring our drift toward the next depression. A Trump presidency promises the most severe decline in this regard, yet conscious awareness of reality is so deficient that, it seems, Donald Trump is incapable even of defeating himself, no matter how indifferent he may actually be about winning the election.

The inevitability of the further decline and demise of civilization, despite what should be the positive advantages of human consciousness, is very real. For me, this takes away nearly all the enjoyment I once experienced with fantasy and science fiction: It is terrifying, in fact, to consider what the WestWorld episodes suggest about the dark side of human nature, and that dark side is hard to counter when far too many of us cannot effectively distinguish between fact and fiction or, hooked by fanciful ideological or religious thinking, choose to remain in denial about what is “real” and what is “unreal” in this world. Tonight, the neighborhood children come trick-or-treating. For me, this will not be the welcome respite it has been in years past from the realities  of our world.

JMH – 10/31/2016

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The Terrifying Truth About Politics

The preceding post began with a little-noticed quotation from Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention: “I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should.” We saw in that post that looking at this relationship the other way around is more useful: there are powerful economic forces that determine political outcomes and the success or failure of politics in democracy.

Despite the natural and virtually mandatory political stance of the Democratic Party that Barack Obama’s economic legacy is positive, the Democratic nominee is now charged with replacing Barack Obama, and extending the populism he has promoted and his economic legacy. Forced to concede that “our economy isn’t working the way it should,” she must now veer farther left than has been her custom, endorsing the most progressive DNC platform in decades.

The socioeconomic battle lines for the upcoming contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and for upcoming Congressional and state gubernatorial contests, are drawn: Democrats will argue that Obama did what he could, but it wasn’t enough because of GOP obstructionism. The frightening thing about this election season is that, although this is largely true, Hillary Clinton must overcome unpopularity among progressives as well as the onslaught from the traditional Republican playbook (lower taxes and less government) to win this election. The terrifying truth, building on what we have learned about how the economy really works, is that an unrestrained Trump presidency would be a horrific economic disaster, with extremely serious consequences for our future. These consequences, as reviewed in the last post, are far more serious than people are aware, and because of academia’s refusal to explore and understand the full destructive effects of inequality, the public, the media, and even the profession itself, are a long way from appreciating this reality. A further problem is that avoiding a Trump presidency, in the current plutocratic socioeconomic situation, is not our only serious concern.

The current political situation is shaped by a sobering set of basic considerations:

  • All of politics is grounded in economics. As the saying goes, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Everything people need – from their food, clothing, and shelter to their health care and transportation – costs money, and people know when it is getting harder to make ends meet;
  • Inequality growth is a linear process in which money is progressively moved from the lower classes to the top and the economy progressively shrinks overall. This is the underlying factor behind our failing democracy, and our failure to understand that fact renders the American people susceptible to extremely dysfunctional politics;
  • Although the declining real incomes of the vast majority of Americans explains the widespread rejection in the primaries of the party establishment and its orthodoxy by both Democrats and Republicans, media political analysis has failed to acknowledge or focus on the primacy of the voters’ economic concerns. The Sanders campaign really was a political revolution, but mainstream media turned its back on that fact;
  • The media are controlled by wealthy billionaires, and the news analysis we read, listen to on the radio, or watch on TV is skewed in a way that protects the interests of wealth. The primary interest of wealth thus protected is the desire to avoid taxation;
  • We are accustomed to accept “argument by authority,” and the most authoritative voices presented to us on economics, such as that of Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, are presented as objective opinion, but in truth are constrained by and shaped to favor the interests of wealth, leading to positions that are dangerously wrong, and that threaten our survival.

This is the most bizarre presidential campaign season in years and, to the best of my recollection, in my lifetime. As our unacknowledged depression gradually deepens, and people increasingly feel the pain, obviously they would be expected to make their concerns known in the political process. But the revolt against mainstream politics has moved well beyond the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2011, which resulted in 2012, predictably enough, in a political revolt against the reigning Democratic Party. Now both parties find themselves on the political ropes, and the really significant socioeconomic development is that the Republican Party is threatened with a complete collapse. Some of its leaders have refused to back Donald Trump or endorsed Hillary Clinton, but most, at this stage of the game, are falling in line behind him in the interest of party preservation. This post takes a close look at the revolt in each party, with special attention to the inequality economics set forth in the last post, and to the media distortions that shape our views, as revealed by the articles published in The New York Times.

The Republican Meltdown

The last post discussed a recent article by Eduardo Porter of The New York Times which cited a Pew Research Center report indicating that 80 percent of its total polling base, 78 percent of Bernie Sanders’s supporters, and virtually all (98 percent) of Donald Trump’s supporters, “feel either angry or frustrated” with government. We do not have an income profile of these intensely disgruntled Trump supporters, but some 61 percent of Trump’s supporters indicated that their incomes are not “keeping up with the cost of living, and 75 percent of them said they feel that “life for them is worse than it was 50 years ago.”

It would be tempting to conclude that most of the public’s low-income angst would be levelled at the outgoing administration, in the traditional fashion of uninformed voters. There has been some argument to that effect (“Unhappy with the Obama economy, voters are buying what Trump’s selling,” by Jana Kasperkevic, The Guardian, May 7, 2016, here):

Obama has unarguably overseen a remarkable turnaround in the jobs market. The unemployment rate is now half the 10% peak it hit at the height of the recession. * * * But with paychecks remaining disappointingly small and layoffs reaching a seven-year high, many have subscribed to Trump’s narrative instead of the one presented by Obama’s administration. It’s a horror story about an American economy in terminal decline, its workers sold down the river to China and Mexico.

The implicit recognition by The Guardian of persistent decline inherent in Trump’s claim that the American economy is in “terminal decline” is an advanced perspective, something you will not see in The New York Times: But what is unique in “Trump’s narrative” that has prompted this wholesale rejection of party orthodoxy? Of course, for workers in coal mining and other industries subject to layoffs, improved overall employment statistics are not impressive. Regardless, the reactions of laid-off workers in such industries cannot explain what has happened to the Republican Party: Trump not only won the nomination, but crushed all of his opposition in a once-large field that quickly narrowed to a small handful of opponents by the time of the Florida primary. The remaining presidential hopefuls at that point, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio (both of whom were already unpopular with rank-and-file voters), Jeb Bush and John Kasich never had any momentum with the Republican base.

Blow-by-blow accounts of the Republican primaries are available, but need not be reviewed here. The key point is that the GOP establishment was dismayed by the popularity of a candidate who manifestly lacked presidential stature, and was singularly unprepared and noncommittal on the issues. The GOP pushed back, even trotting out Mitt Romney at one point to condemn Trump’s bid. But none of these efforts worked.

The reason Trump supporters abandoned the party establishment should be fairly obvious: Clearly the GOP had become dominated by the libertarian “Tea Party” faction, so primary voters were not attracted to Trump because they felt the party mainstream was somehow less distrustful of government than they were. No, they rebelled because they felt betrayed by the GOP establishment, which they had served faithfully, helping to foment dissension and discord on socioeconomic and racial issues, only to find that the GOP economic playbook had backfired in their faces. As it became painfully clear in recent years that “stimulating” the economy by choking off and reducing government (austerity) simply has not worked for them, suddenly they had found the candidate of their dreams: Donald Trump reinforced their racism, sexism, and xenophobia while insisting that they could and should have more jobs and higher incomes without having to put up with more dreaded government. He did not tell them how it could be done, just that he could do it, and his magical arrogance and belligerence was enough for them. Believing that nonsense, of course, is supremely stupid and ignorant.

The GOP establishment, naturally enough, finds Trump’s demeanor and independence insufferable. Still, the billionaires that dominate our economy through the GOP do not want to surrender Republican dominance of government. Hence, the beat goes on. Notably, for example, the Regal Entertainment Group, a massive conglomerate of nationwide movie theaters owned by billionaires and multi-millionaires, is right now showing an extremely hate mongering movie entitled “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party” on an extended run. The movie features the pathologically warped perspective of the controversial right-wing radical Dinesh D’Sousa, a man with no coherent or objective sense of economics or history. The screen is filled with provocative, and occasionally sickening, staged images of lynched slaves and 19th  Century warfare. The historical message is that the Democratic Party has always been the embodiment of evil and the defender of slavery, while the Republican Party has always been slavery’s avid foe and the defender of justice. D’Sousa poses as an innocent immigrant searching for the “truth” while he systematically lays out his closed-minded, simplistic ideology.

I had previously seen an earlier D’Sousa movie (2014) entitled “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” There was some Hillary bashing in that movie, but what mainly impressed me about it was the total ignorance it displayed about how the economy works, and its blind faith that America is a land of vast opportunity available to everyone. “Hillary’s America” is considerably darker. Lincoln’s vice president Andrew Johnson, who has come to be regarded as one America’s worst presidents, is singled out for special attention. Johnson opposed the 14th amendment which gave citizenship to former slaves, and he presided over a reconstruction in the South that deprived freed slaves of many civil liberties. D’Sousa presents a scene representing Johnson having sex with a black woman along with scenes depicting KKK riders and other criminals, all said to portray the secret history of the entire, evil Democratic Party. In a snide allusion to Bill Clinton, at one point he quips: “What is it about Democratic presidents and pretty young girls?”

The movie is slanderous in intent and effect. Hillary and Bill Clinton are said to be “depraved crooks,” yet ironically former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke of the modern KKK has enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton. The stunning thing to me is that the very wealthy owners of the Regal Entertainment Group would stoop so low as to promote such a trashy, fact-deprived diatribe in their effort to arouse the fears and prejudices of ignorant voters.

Despite the angst Donald Trump is causing with his disrespectful campaign, there is little new about the underlying con game he is running. The GOP has always played on fears, tribal instincts and bigotry while duping people into voting against their own self-interest by posing as a populist party. Milton Friedman used the lottery as a symbol of the supposed ability of anyone to get rich in America, and Trump uses the same approach. It’s just repackaged in a form that pretends to reject the GOP playbook, while actually endorsing it — with a vengeance. Trump’s taxation plan is draconian, highly favorable to billionaires. He would repeal the estate tax, preserving the leisure class. Until today (“Donald Trump just made a major change to his tax plan,” by Jacob Pramuk, CNBC, August 8, 2016, here), he had planned to reduce the top income tax rate to 25 percent, down from 39.6 percent. That would have been a new low since just before the market crash in 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression. Now Trump proposes a 33 percent top rate. The truth is that any reduction in tax revenue from the wealthiest among us would aggravate the already dangerous inequality problem created by earlier reductions of the top rate, and this of course would gravely harm Trump’s supporters along with everyone else. The top rate would have to be raised to 70% to match its level at the start of the Reagan Revolution.

The New York Times implicitly supports Trump and the GOP in its front page article reporting on these proposal changes (“Trump Outlines Economic Agenda and Tax Changes,” by Neil Irwin and Alan Rappeport, August 9, 2016, here). The article concedes up front that these proposals would provide a “considerable lift” to the wealthiest, and that Trump’s tax policies “track closely with what Republicans in Congress have long advocated.” Because of current exemptions for small estates, the article also points out that “only the very wealthy” benefit from eliminating the so-called “death tax.”

The article next points out that Trump’s plans call for reducing income tax rates for everyone, then computes comparative savings for large and small incomes. Deep in the article (p. A14), when many readers could be expected to push on to other news, the article reveals and briefly criticizes another proposal, for “reducing the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from its current 35 percent.”  Instead of expressing alarm at what would have to be serious revenue impacts of all of these regressive changes, however, the article suddenly added, mid-paragraph, the following:

An analysis by the Tax Foundation found that it would increase after-tax income for middle-income families (those in the 40th to 60th percentile) by 0.2 percent. It would increase after-tax income for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans by 5.3 percent.

The conservative-leaning foundation found that the plan would reduce revenue by $2.4 trillion over the coming decade using “static analysis,” but that it would result in a comparatively modest revenue reduction of about $200 billion if you assume that lower taxes will result in much stronger economic growth.

Other elements of Mr. Trump’s economic agenda lack details that would make similar analysis possible.

Many reading this deep into the article might not pause to reflect on whether a $2.4 trillion “static” revenue reduction could actually be implemented without resulting in an equally huge off-setting reduction in federal spending, or increase in federal borrowing. The article reports uncritically, and thus implicitly accepts, the entirely false “trickle-down” claim that we can assume that “lower taxes will result in much stronger economic growth.”

That is simply untrue. Only a more progressive tax structure that reduces income inequality can result in economic growth. Any economics reporter (or economist) worth her/his salt should have noticed that after the famous similarly across-the-board (more or less) GW Bush tax cuts, the conservative-leaning (putting it politely) Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis conducted a “dynamic simulation” expressing the trickle-down assumption that the Bush tax cuts would result in strong economic growth. The Heritage foundation estimated not merely that that the net revenue reduction would be considerably less than predicted by the “static” computations, but asserted that they would more than pay for themselves in stimulated growth. Its embarrassing prediction was that the national debt would effectively be paid off by FY 2010, i.e., in eight years (“The Economic Impact of President Bush’s Tax Relief Plan, D. Mark Wilson and William Beach, Report #0101, April 27, 2001, here). Exactly the opposite took place: The national debt was not paid off, or even reduced – instead it nearly doubled, from $5.6 trillion at end of FY 2000 to $11.9 at the end of FY 2010 (Treasury Direct, here).

This should be famous among the long record of disproof of the trickle-down fantasy, but New York Times economic reporters continue to report this “right-leaning” garbage with undue deference. In doing so, they implicitly endorse the GOP’s position, and hence greatly enhance Donald Trump’s chances of winning the presidency.

Importantly, to The New York Times, this is political news, and it was reported on the “Elections 2016” page of today’s newspaper. In the “fact Check” column on that page (here), Binyamin Appelbaum purported to disagree with Trump’s seeming assessment that unemployment is much worse than officially reported: “One in five American households do not have a single member in the labor force. Not a single member of the household.” In his response, Appelbaum merely quibbled a bit, but could not fault Trump’s statement. There was, he observed, only 4.9% unemployment in July:

The data, however, is incomplete. The unemployment rate measures the number of people who are actively seeking work. It does not include people who have given up in frustration, who are staying home to care for children or parents, or who have decided to retire.

The evidence suggests a lot of people are still sitting on the sidelines involuntarily.

The problem with Trump on economics is not that the economy is actually doing better than he argues. His problem is that he does not have a clue about, and does not even seem to care about, how the economy grows, or what it takes for the economy to actually offer more jobs: He endorses – in spades – the very GOP economic ideology that created the massive underemployment and declining income problem to begin with.

The Democratic Conundrum

The essence of the Porter article discussed in the last post, and above, was the suggestion that there is a “strong case for more government – not less – as the most promising way to improve the nation’s standard of living.” The Democratic Party is missing its strongest argument: It’s more than just a “strong case.” More government, carefully managed, is essential to growth and improving the standard of living of lower income citizens.  Yes,Democrats must better understand inequality and tax progressiveness, but addressing those issues is being steadfastly avoided by the billionaires that own our major mass media sources.

Porter could easily have verified that the incomes of the vast majority of American are not “keeping up with the rising cost of living,” and rejected out of hand the disproved and discredited trickle-down claim that the road to prosperity lies through reduced government spending and taxation. However, he tread lightly, relying on a rehash of public opinion. He linked one of his earlier articles that dealt directly with inequality and taxation, in which he endorsed the conservative propaganda arguing that wealthy capitalists (and their corporations) will avoid increasing their pretax income to avoid higher tax liability.

I have thoroughly reviewed the logical fallacies of the “conservative” lines regarding taxation and progressiveness in my newly-published e-book (Reinventing Economics: The failure of Capitalism and the Economics of Inequality, Amazon Kindle, May 2016), discussing the bogus trickle-down fantasy at some length. Before leaving that topic, I feel compelled to remind readers of Warren Buffett’s point: “People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off.” (“Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” Op-ed, The New York Times, August 11, 2011 (here). The trickle-down argument is first cousin of the magical idea that when the rich get richer, everyone else is better off. The mainstream media, however, refuse to expose this “conservative” nonsense.

This kind of thinking, of course, has always favored Republican candidates and now favors Donald Trump. Anyone believing these absurdities will find no economic reason not to vote for Donald Trump. The failure of journalism to counter these arguments, now that the deep flaws in mainstream economics are becoming apparent, effectively takes economic considerations off the political table. Thus, mainstream media functions to ensure that the election will not produce economically rational results.

Just as the RNC rebelled against the Trump candidacy, the members of the DNC, far more privately, marshaled their support for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic Party’s primary season. This is a comparable adverse reaction from the political insiders of both parties to outsider incursions, but that is where the similarity ends: Sanders and Trump supporters, like their leaders, have almost nothing in common ideologically or philosophically. They share only their dismay at their own declining incomes and standard of living: The Sanders supporters, however, are true progressives, much more in tune with the realities of inequality, and much more inclined to see their difficulties in such terms. Crucially, this progressive perspective insists on keeping economic considerations on the table, and on working for elections to produce economically rational results.

The time was ripe for a progressive movement when Sanders entered the race, and disenchanted voters rallied behind him in great numbers.. An Independent running for the Democratic Party’s nomination, Sanders campaigned on behalf of ordinary working people, calling for a “New Deal” revival, hearkening back to the Roosevelt era. The central theme of the Sanders campaign was the need to halt the growth of inequality. He urged restoration of New Deal reforms, including effective collective bargaining, anti-trust enforcement, and the regulation of banks and essential industries, all of which were wiped out by the “Reagan Revolution” which commenced the massive, alarming rise of income inequality.  He was especially popular among the “millennials,” younger voters who were several generations removed from the New Deal, and had never experienced symptoms of depression.

There is a commentary thread that says Sanders is less hawkish than Clinton in matters of foreign affairs and national security. Regardless of whether that is true, that clearly was not why he ran for the presidency. The crucial controversies between Sanders and Clinton at the beginning of the primary season were on economic issues, such as the question of bank regulation and breaking up the big banks. In accepting the nomination, Hillary Clinton had to accommodate the incredibly strong support that exists for Bernie Sanders, to endorse a very progressive platform, and to offer to partner with Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others to strive for significant change.

Unfortunately, the Democratic platform misses the vitality it would have if the full, dangerous impact of inequality growth was understood by the economics profession, which labors under misconceptions developed over many decades to protect the interests of great wealth, and which have always tended to validate the Republican Party’s agenda. At this point in American history, the inequality issue boils down to a pressing need to tax the rich, but the billionaire-controlled media, and most other wealthy capitalists, continue to avoid the taxation issue, so we are not enlightened on this most important issue.

The Budget Debate

This is unfortunate, for the federal budget and the deficit are currently front page news, covered extensively by The New York Times and other print media. Paul Krugman is the newspaper’s economics Op-ed analyst, and he has also been (and perhaps still is) an advisor to the Clinton campaign: Just before the New Hampshire primaries,Clinton revealed during a debate with Sanders that Krugman had “approved” her economic plan. The cautious gradual approach to reform she advanced at that time does, in fact, reflect Krugman’s perspectives. Although she has since moved to the left in adopting a DNC platform that reflects a much greater sense of urgency, Krugman has not moved with her, as his most recent Op-eds make clear. In last Friday’s Op-ed “No Right Turn,”(August 5, 2016, here), he discussed the swing in the polls in Clinton’s favor, with the result that Trump’s “ugly nonsense gets even uglier and more nonsensical as his electoral prospects sink”:

As a result, we’re finally seeing some prominent Republicans not just refusing to endorse Mr. Trump, but actually declaring their support for Mrs. Clinton. So how should she respond?

Krugman goes on to recommend that Clinton reject advice that she move to the center to try to effect a “grand coalition.” Here is his reasoning:

First of all, let’s be clear about what she’s running on. It’s an unabashedly progressive program, but hardly extreme. We’re talking about higher taxes on high incomes, but nowhere near as high as those taxes were for a generation after World War II; expanded social programs, but nothing close to those of European welfare states; stronger financial regulation and more action on climate change, but aren’t the cases for both overwhelming?

And no, the program doesn’t need to be more “pro-growth.”

There’s absolutely no evidence that tax cuts for the rich and radical deregulation, which is what right-wingers mean when they talk about pro-growth policies, actually work, or that strengthening the social safety net does any harm. Bill Clinton presided over a bigger boom than Ronald Reagan; the Obama years have seen much more private job creation than the Bush era, even before the crash, with job growth actually accelerating after taxes went up and Obamacare went into effect.

It’s true that there are things we could do to boost the U.S. economy. The most important of these things, however, would be to take advantage of very low government borrowing costs to greatly expand public investment — which is something progressives support but conservatives oppose. So enough already with the notion that being on the center-left somehow means being anti-growth.

Let’s break this down: According to Krugman, Clinton does not need “pro-growth” policies. and although Clinton is talking about higher taxes on high incomes, her proposals are modest. He ignores the consistent trend since 1980 of gradually declining growth. But what would a pro-growth policy, in his view, look like? He says there is “no evidence” that tax cuts for the rich “actually work,” but that position is far too equivocal in the face of overwhelming evidence, as discussed above, that tax cuts at the top actually reduce growth and increase inequality. Krugman’s neoclassical perspective misses that, and also misses its corollary — the pro-growth effect of increasing top taxes. Because in his mind taxation offers no prospect for a “pro-growth” policy, Krugman, like Eduardo Porter, has conceded the taxation issue to Trump and the Republicans.

For several years, Krugman has argued that to boost the economy without raising taxes at the top, the government should simply increase its borrowing. But with this argument he has jumped from the frying pan into the fire, putting himself in the awkward position of taking on the growing criticism of our ever increasing national debt. Not surprisingly, the following Monday Krugman turned to the deficit topic (“Time to Borrow,” August 8, 2016, here):

“So what should she do,” he began, “to boost America’s economy, which is doing better than most of the world but is still falling far short of where it should be?” The most important thing America needs, he wrote, is “sharply increased public investment in everything from energy to transportation to wastewater treatment.” This is certainly one of our top priorities, and any such program could help grow the economy. But Krugman continues:

How should we pay for this investment? We shouldn’t — not now, or any time soon. Right now there is an overwhelming case for more government borrowing.

Any time soon?  For this incredible proposition, Krugman offers some outrageously dubious arguments:

  • The fact that we need more investment, he says, suggests that we should borrow to pay for it, because “this investment might well pay for itself even in purely fiscal terms. How so? Spending more now would mean a bigger economy later, which would mean more tax revenue.” But this is extremely shallow thinking, especially for a Nobel laureate, and it is reminiscent of the conservative (and corollary) argument that tax cuts for the rich might somehow pay for themselves, which they never have. Think about it: There is nothing about a new road or a new bridge that creates more economic activity; and how is it that all the government borrowing over the last 30 years that resulted in $19 trillion of debt has failed to “pay for itself,” or even produce a semblance of growth? Paul Krugman, who has conceded that the “dirty little secret” of the economics profession is that it does not understand growth, simply does not know;
  • Public investment, he says, has a potential role in job creation. That is certainly true, and that is the hope of the progressive program. But no sane private employer would keep going into debt, with no additional income source, to keep paying for such jobs. An endless stream of borrowing is not, and cannot, be the answer to any investment program, public or private;
  • Krugman notes the objection that “we can’t borrow because we already have too much debt.” Our debt already exceeds $19 trillion, critics “intone in their best Dr. Evil voice.” But belittling the point doesn’t make it go away. Everything about the U.S. economy is huge, he says, and the crucial concern is the comparison between “the cost of servicing the debt and our ability to pay.” And “federal interest payments are only 1.3 percent of GDP, low by historical standards.” This does not, however, offer a valid reason to be sanguine about the rapidly increasing carrying charges on the debt: (1) First, CBO projections show the net interest payments growing from about 1.4% of GDP in 2015 to 3.4% by 2024, because the debt has been consistently growing faster than GDP (“The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024,” CBO, August 2014, here, p. 50); (2) The more pertinent comparison is with other government costs. CBO projections for 2024 are that net interest will exceed the entire projected defense budget by more than $100 billion, and would be 64% the size of the entire discretionary budget, putting an obviously severe strain on the system; (3) Krugman’s argument fails to take into account the excessive burden of the rapidly growing carrying charges, under the current regressive tax structure, on low-income taxpayers, or the fact that the interest payments to wealthy holders of federal debt causes income inequality to grow.

Krugman concludes that “while the politics remains uncertain, it’s clear what we should be doing. It’s time for the federal government to borrow and invest.” But nowhere in this article did Krugman even hint at the best argument for not borrowing more: There would be no need to borrow if we tax the rich instead. Increasing the progressiveness of the tax structure by raising the top rate makes the economy more likely to grow, sustaining new jobs with a continuing source of revenues that are redistributed down from the top into a more active, higher velocity role in the marketplace. But that obvious solution is off the table, and must be ignored  by people writing for The New York Times.

More on the Overriding Deficit Issue

Today, Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins explained in a PBS News interview why she could not endorse Donald Trump, and when asked she said she could not, unlike some of her Republican colleagues, support Hillary Clinton instead, she explained that Clinton’s progressive agenda was too expensive, and we already have too much federal debt.

The New York Times, meanwhile, continues doggedly to support a reckless “conservative” mythology on the debt issue. Two days before publishing Porter’s article, The New York Times published “However Vote Goes, Expect Rise in Deficits,” by Nelson D. Schwartz (8/1/16, here). The article began with this:

For most voters, the idea of more government borrowing and spending is about as popular as the Zika virus. And while Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agree on almost nothing, mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike often talk about the national debt the way prohibitionists once discussed booze.

But among economists, the outlook is changing. And with interest rates near historical lows and growth stuck in a rut even as the recovery from the Great Recession moves into its eighth year this summer, even some veterans of Washington’s budget wars are challenging the reigning fiscal orthodoxy that perceives the perennial budget gap as something inherently sinful.

“The views of economists about the deficit are shifting,” said Douglas W. Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2009 to 2015 and now dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard. “If the very low level of interest rates persists for years to come, as many experts and analysts think is likely, that’s a sea change for budget policy.”

More borrowing might actually be healthy, many economists say, at least in the short term, by helping to elevate the economy’s long-depressed growth trajectory.

Here, Schwartz poses as someone who is providing an objective cross-section of all economic opinions. In reality, he decides whose views to report and what conflicting opinions to emphasize. This is not the objective reporting it appears to be: Quoting Douglas Elmendorf to the effect that the continuation of low interest rates might somehow enable more borrowing to “elevate the economy’s long-depressed growth trajectory,” is like quoting Paul Krugman to the effect that more borrowing could perhaps even “pay for itself.”

To be sure, Elmendorf’s arguments have not been as radical as Krugman’s. Before he left his post as director of the CBO, Elmendorf had presided over equivocal findings that continuous budget deficits cannot be sustained “indefinitely,” an obvious point, really, with the carrying charges on the debt already threateningly high and continuing to grow exponentially. But Elmendorf is still on the wrong side of this issue. Like Krugman, he expresses no sense of urgency  about a problem that is already becoming alarming.

A serious problem with his thinking is that CBO does not recognize any macroeconomic effect of inequality growth. Thus, as wealth and incomes continue to concentrate at the top exponentially, effectively sequestering the incomes and wealth of other Americans as the debt rises, CBO’s deficit projections are perpetually over-optimistic, ignoring the demonstrated effect of growing inequality in suppressing overall growth. So, even under current policies (the CBO “base case”), the CBO has underestimated the danger in the current situation.

Like Eduardo Porter and Paul Krugman, Nelson D. Schwartz rumbles through his entire long analysis with no hint that the answer might lie in significantly higher taxes at the top of the income ladder. Without even acknowledging the existence of that option, he concludes that “regardless of who wins in November, it now appears that the next president is more likely than not to end up backing, if not embracing, more deficit spending.” Some experts, Schwartz casually reports, “fear that Mr. Trump will push the government to max out on debt, as many Trump properties have done over the years.”

He does emphasize that Trump’s proposals to radically cut income taxes would greatly change the outlook:

But the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group that advocates fiscal restraint, estimates that Mr. Trump’s plan to cut taxes could raise the national debt by $11.5 trillion over the next decade to roughly $35 trillion in 2026.

Hillary Clinton, while also likely to preside over a rise in federal borrowing, is far more restrained. But her proposals could quickly add up.

In its 2014 Budget Outlook, which was the last one to present enough detail for this kind of review, CBO projected debt held by the public to rise by roughly $7 trillion between 2015 and 2024. Thus, the CRFB projection appears to have estimated that the Trump tax reduction proposals would roughly double the amount of new debt to be expected under current taxation. Clearly, the total federal debt would increase substantially, and the already dangerous level of debt coverage would be well over the top.

Why not avoid all this drama and risk by substantially raising taxes at the top? Schwartz’s discussion of increased taxation is quite limited:

According to Mrs. Clinton’s plan, adjusting the business tax code would “fully pay for these investments.” Yet a broad overhaul of corporate taxation has been talked about by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington for years with little to show for it.

Well, that’s politics. And right now, although Trump is gleefully talking about huge reductions in the top income tax rate, there are no citations in any of these New York Times articles to anyone even considering an increase in the top income tax rate. That too is politics, and it is becoming ever clearer who controls the conversation.

Summary and Conclusions

In this post I have focused mostly on The New York Times coverage of politics and the economic issues that are now gaining the most attention. As it looks increasingly likely that Clinton can hold off a determined challenge by an egregiously unqualified candidate that has earned the enmity of much of his own party, it would be really bizarre for that newspaper to end up not supporting Hillary Clinton for president.

A careful review of its articles and op-eds, however, shows that the New York Times economic reports, including the opinions of Paul Krugman himself, are at worst endorsing the Republican trickle-down fantasy or, at best, failing to forcefully reject it. Very wealthy people are unwilling to entertain proposals to raise their taxes, and the issue of tax progressiveness, always obfuscated, is now entirely off the table. The Republicans would simply (and some of them gleefully) trash our economy and our country, but the Democratic Party is also infected with the trickle-down disease, despite Clinton’s proposal to impose on the wealthy their “fair share” of taxation.

The bottom line is that our country is firmly plutocratic, with the politics of both political parties dominated by the interests of extreme wealth. Because, as discussed in the prior post, the economics of inequality remains poorly understood by nearly everyone, the reality of how badly this political reality is harming our once vibrant economy, and at least partially functional democracy, is almost completely obscured. The overwhelming importance of taxing the rich has gone unnoticed by the mainstream, billionaire-owned media, and by all of the presidential candidates, with the exception of Bernie Sanders. Plutocracy in America is not yet all-powerful, but it is powerful enough to keep us largely in the dark about the extremely harmful effects of income and wealth concentration.

My expectation is that the overall level of awareness of inequality issues will not change much in the near future. It is frightening to see very wealthy people promote the hateful prejudices of people like Dinesh D’Sousa, choosing to help rip our social fabric apart, and to ignore all of the problems of the real world that require good will and cooperation to solve, rather than suffer the slightest diminution of their wealth.

At least their agenda is clarified: But because inequality is a far more serious problem than generally imagined, the political process has become far more precarious than we realize. It seems likely that Hillary Clinton will win in November. However, even in a Hillary Clinton first term there is a real chance of another stock market crash that will swallow up perhaps 25 percent or more of America’s financial wealth, with great damage to the underclasses, eclipsing the liberal agenda she has staked out.

The scariest thing about politics is our ignorance about economics: Such a crash will come as a major surprise. Things may have to get much, much worse before they can get better. That is a prospect, quite frankly, that we should all find terrifying. Still we must continue to hope for the best, and work for a better world.

JMH – 8/10/16

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The Terrifying Truth About Economics

This post, and a follow-up post, are about the extremely dangerous economic and political predicament of the United States in 2016. With regard to our economic situation, the danger of another crash, and a complete collapse into another Great Depression within a very few years, is much more serious than nearly everyone imagines. The “truth about economics” is that inequality of income and wealth itself has enormously debilitating effects that academic economics does not comprehend, because the study of income and wealth distribution has been suppressed for over a century. A thorough study of inequality’s causes and effects leads to conclusions that are very frightening.

In her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention (7/28/16), Hillary Clinton offered an opinion that has been pretty much overlooked by the media: “I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should.” This little-noticed point is certainly true in its most obvious sense: Dysfunctional democracy leads to economic failure. Unless the institutions needed for a stable economy are created and preserved, through democratic government, the economic power inherent in the possession of wealth will prevail over the interests of the many. But the opposite frame of this causal relationship is perhaps even more significantly true: “Our democracy isn’t working the way it should because our economy isn’t working the way it should.”

Economic failure seriously affects democracy as well, and this reverse focus allows us to perceive the great power of economic systems, and to understand their social consequences. This year’s presidential race is all about economics, yet economic reality has receded into the background of the media tempest. A pervasive reason for this is the massive confusion in the media and in academia attending the causes of our persistent decline, which everyone can clearly feel, but no one successfully explains.

The Problem of Simplistic Thinking

Consider the illuminating observations about cause and effect by Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science George Lakoff (“Understanding Trump,” The Blog, The Huffington Post, here), on the topic of “Direct vs. Systemic Causation”:

Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation. Systemic causation has four versions: A chain of direct causes. Interacting direct causes (or chains of direct causes). Feedback loops. And probabilistic causes. Systemic causation in global warming explains why global warming over the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms in Washington, D.C.: masses of highly energized water molecules evaporate over the Pacific, blow to the Northeast and over the North Pole and come down in winter over the East coast and parts of the Midwest as masses of snow. Systemic causation has chains of direct causes, interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes — often combined.

Direct causation is easy to understand, and appears to be represented in the grammars of all languages around the world. Systemic causation is more complex and is not represented in the grammar of any language. It just has to be learned.

Empirical research has shown that conservatives tend to reason with direct causation and that progressives have a much easier time reasoning with systemic causation. The reason is thought to be that, in the strict father model, the father expects the child or spouse to respond directly to an order and that refusal should be punished as swiftly and directly as possible.

The most simplistic of economic ideologies involve ideas invoking perceptions of direct causes and effects, or a chain of direct causes. But we need to recognize that systemic causation exists and is enormously significant. For example, the conservative argument against raising the minimum wage is that doing so will discourage investment and employment, shrinking the economy. But this perspective is the opposite of the truth, as “feedback loops” are involved here. If every employer is paying a minimum wage, no disadvantage from doing so is experienced by any employer. And with all the additional demand flowing from the higher wages, sales improve across the board. Thus, the net effect of increasing the minimum wage is to stimulate, not depress, economic growth. (With an increase in the minimum wage, only those employers who have gained an unfair advantage by paying to little will suffer, and they will suffer only the loss of that unfair advantage.)

The Problem of Denialism

Other major problems contribute greatly to our inability to understand the powerful harm caused by inequality. One is the psychological tendency to deny unpleasant facts. Throughout history, myths and fantasies of all sorts, most of them driven by fear, have gained control of human minds. Climate denialism is driven by the powerful desire of wealthy interests to avoid change, and depletion of their wealth. By 2016, it had become abundantly clear that producers of fossil fuels had been denying the evidence of manmade global warming for decades. I’ll mention just one authoritative report that “Exxon has done a masterful job of hedging its bets, both by omission and commission omitting (from its SEC 10-K reports) for many years, and then grossly understating, the vast array of direct and indirect risks it faces as a result of climate change.” (Climate Science & Policy Watch, “Exxon Mobil and Climate Change: A Story of Denial, Delay, and Delusion, Told in Forms 10-K (1993-2000),” March 8, 2016, here.)

Hillary Clinton addressed climate change as well in her acceptance speech, stating: “I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.” In stressing that fighting climate change offers broad economic benefits as well as the benefit of preserving our social and environmental world, she echoed President Obama’s forceful presentation of the previous evening. This should not be the slightest bit controversial: It seems surreal that a major candidate for the presidency should have to argue on behalf of saving the planet. However, even after all that has been learned over the last decade, despite all of the predictions of melting ice, rising sea levels, receding shorelines, and species extinctions established by science, the forces of capitalism are still strongly resisting the call to save our world.

This denialism is clearly motivated by the powerful interests of those with the economic power to do so to continue taking massive profits from the world’s most profitable corporate income source – fossil fuels. The wealthiest among us who are capable of doing so avoid acting to deal with the inevitable catastrophic effects of global warming. It matters not whether they are unconcerned about the fate of the planet, or blinded by a misguided faith that the huge costs of dealing with these effects, and even the effects themselves, will not significantly affect them. It should be regarded as insane, frankly, to deny the proven requirements of our survival: We are forced to conclude, therefore, that the interest of wealth preservation holds an insanely powerful grip on wealthy denialists.

It should not be surprising to learn, then, that since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution more than 150 years ago an equally pernicious denialism has exercised great control over the development of mainstream economic thinking. The “neoclassical” economic ideology that promotes the virtue of profits, and champions capitalism over all other forms of socioeconomic organization, completely dominates mainstream academia today. Classical economics, as discussed below, began with intense concern about poverty and inequality in the 16th through 18th Centuries, but with the advent of “capitalism” and the Industrial Revolution, the classical philosophy atrophied, and by the Great Depression of the 1930s it was all but dead — and with the demise of classicism came the death of “scientific” economics.

The Limited Growth and Cloistering of Factual Knowledge  

The human mind, with its penchant for mythology and religious ideology, readily accepts comforting ideas that seem plausible on their face, but cannot survive factual or even, in many cases, logical scrutiny. Neoclassicism relies on a host of such fanciful, imaginary ideas: Over its first few centuries, economic ideology developed mainly through philosophical thought, without the benefit of much useful data. Thus, imagination has pretty much ruled the development of ideology from the beginning. Verifiable, fact-based knowledge could not evolve properly, because the study of poverty and the distribution of income and wealth are especially data-intensive subjects. The necessary data, and the powerful computer technology needed to process and test it properly, until quite recently did not exist.

The ideas that evolved were stored away, mainly, in libraries and the files of academic institutions, cloistered and far less accessible than today. It has only been since development of the internet “cloud,” with its vast reservoir of information, that anyone outside of ivied halls of academia who wanted to invest the enormous time and effort needed to figure out “the economics of inequality,” and try to advance the economics discipline scientifically, could attempt to do so. Unfortunately, by the time that became feasible to do (well into the 21st Century), neoclassical thinking had ossified and formed a protective layer of institutional support that is all but impervious to challenge. Moreover, it appears, there are not many professional fact-finders like myself, whose careers were outside of the controlled environments of academia but nonetheless depended on objective, open-minded evaluations of economic issues, and who are old enough and sufficiently experienced in relevant areas of inquiry to advance the discipline and to thoroughly review the history of U.S. inequality unfettered by the biases of neoclassical thinking.

Stunningly, I appear to be the only person to do so thus far. Because I firmly believe that the survival of our democracy and our economy will require a much broader understanding of the extensive perils attending extreme inequality, I felt compelled to write a book and try to overcome the many obstacles it faces. Especially at this time, when the Democratic Party needs to spread feelings of optimism and hope, and remains itself substantially in the dark about the broader truths of dynamic income and wealth distribution, I remain quite frankly terrified about our future. For now, I feel virtually alone, like a modern-day Chicken Little, appearing to make a preposterous “the-sky-is-falling” claim. This election year, however, many untutored people are seeing firsthand what mainstream economics denies, just as “ordinary” people did during the Great Depression, when John Maynard Keynes first leveled his academic sights on neoclassicism.

I’ll return below to a discussion of how (and why) neoclassicism has drastically misled us, but first, I’ll identify what I feel are the main truths neoclassical ideology has been denying.

How Our Economy Really Works

            The following is a summary of my major ­conclusions about how market economies work, and in particular about the history of the United States experience with inequality and its effects, set forth in my e-book “Reinventing Economics: The Failure of Capitalism and the Economics of Inequality” ($9.99 at Amazon Kindle). This was a serious, scientific effort of several years, and the results, as I have said, are alarming. Here are the basic facts:

  • The most important factor determining decline or growth, depression or prosperity, is the degree of income and wealth inequality in the system;
  • At high levels of income and wealth concentration, such as exist today, GDP (income) growth is markedly slowed. The ultimate, inexorable result is depression, and it is government’s main job, therefore, to prevent the rise of excessive economic inequality;
  • Because it takes money to make money, and financial wealth compounds, once the conditions for inequality growth are established it continues steadily and exponentially;
  • American inequality began to grow with the Reagan Administration, and was intensified over subsequent GOP administrations, as taxes on corporate earnings and top incomes were drastically reduced;
  • Those tax cuts have been financed by growing national debt and shrinking government services (austerity). The national debt now (as of July 2016) totals over $19.4 trillion (“Federal Debt Clock,” here);
  • This amounts to a per capita national debt of $59,646 (as of 8/1/2016);
  • Top 1% financial wealth, including estimates of money removed to “off-shore” accounts to avoid taxation,  has risen even more,  by an estimated $23-25 trillion or more (between 1980 and 2014);
  • Bottom 90% incomes are stagnant, as almost all income growth is now going high in the top 1% and the top 0.1% of reported incomes; Incomes in the bottom 80% are declining, and wealth inequality is even higher and growing faster. The bottom 60% of American have zero wealth (net worth);
  • As net worth declines beneath the top 1%, debt increases, and debt bubbles are rapidly growing in student debt, automobile debt, credit card balances, and once again in mortgage debt. With low and gradually declining levels of consumer demand, investment in manufacturing and retail sectors is growing more stagnant;
  • Decline in the private sectors of the economy has meant declining tax revenues at all levels of government. The federal government has cut back on spending, but the GOP-controlled Congress has minimized the potential stimulation of “fiscal” policy by seeking to greatly reduce programs in which spending would aid lower-income people.

We’re in a Gradually Deepening Depression.

As data on inequality published by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reveals, the consequent “hollowing out” of the middle class, which has gained much attention this year, is due not as much to the repression of wages and incomes – which has been substantial – but to the even larger concentration of small business income at the top. Much of that is a consequence of the merger boom, in which large corporations have swallowed up smaller ones, and much of it relates to the ability of giant retailers like Wal-Mart to drive smaller competitors out of business.

For a number of years the Fed has hoped for enough growth to increase the basic “federal funds” rate, regaining monetary flexibility, and in December of 2015 a modest increase was hopefully implemented, for the first time since 2006 (See, e.g., Vox Explainers, Timothy B. Lee, ed., 12/16/15,  here), but prospects have since dwindled. This is a clear indication of stagnation. As Bill Bonner sums it up (Bonner & Partners, “Why Yellen Can Never Normalize Interest Rates,” Bonner & Partners, 4/6/2016, here ):

For the last eight years, the Fed has tried to stimulate the economy with ultra-low interest rates. Business, consumers, and government now almost all depend on credit… and most need ultra-low rates to make ends meet.

In his New York Times Op-ed, Paul Krugman occasionally observes that real interest rates in the United States, that is adjusted for inflation, are negative. This is a problem in Europe as well, as recently German investors were reportedly willing to purchase debt securities at nominally negative rates. Paying banks to hold your money signifies significant stagnation. The exception to Bonner’s statement, therefore, is the case of big businesses that do not, on average, need even lower ultra-low rates to prompt them to borrow, but instead have already amassed hundreds of billions of dollars of profit that idly await the expectation of profitable investment opportunities.

U.S. stock market indices have all the while boasted all-time record highs. To the average American, this means that our economy is doing well. However, it is a sign of the excessive cash balances held by the large banks and corporations. Large corporations that provide goods and services for public consumption, on balance, are not doing so well. Even the ultimate consumer retailer, Wal-Mart, which managed to become transform vertical and horizontal monopolistic market power into perhaps the largest retail giant in history, is now contracting, announcing in January 2016 the closing of 154 stores in the United States and 269 worldwide. (USA Today, 1/16/16, here). Faced with stagnant or declining demand, monopoly and oligopoly firms cut back operations to try to maintain optimal profits.

Thus the high level of stock market success reflects growing inequality, not real economic growth. In all likelihood, there are only a few more years before the next stock market crash, as one or more debt bubbles burst or the dollar collapses because the federal debt can no longer be serviced by raising still more debt.

Meanwhile, a U.S. federal debt crisis looms. Budget deficits have been continuous for decades, interrupted only by a brief period of surpluses during the Clinton Administration, made possible by the dot.com revolution and the investment of billions in a nationwide fiber optic network. Even then, income inequality increased sharply and top 1% income percentage grew rapidly. Throughout the 21st Century, federal debt has skyrocketed. This situation amounts to what the great French classical economist Jean-Baptist Say (1767-1832) referred to as a “perpetual annuity:” Principle is never repaid, and continues to earn interest perpetually. Worse, as the amount of outstanding debt continues to grow, the interest obligations continue to grow, exponentially.

Today, interest on the debt exceeds all discretionary government spending categories except for defense, and as I document in my book, the CBO in 2014 projected that net interest on the federal debt will exceed the entire defense budget by 2021. CBO also showed in 2014 that while the Obama Administration has succeeded in reducing deficits to nearly 2% of GDP by 2016, deficits will grow again, under a continuation of current policies, to over 4% of GDP by 2021, and 5% of GDP by 2025. But these are optimistic estimates, because CBO does not account for the dynamic effects of growing inequality.

This is all a direct consequence of growing inequality. In effect, too much money has concentrated at the top, and the federal government’s ability to stimulate the economy has been effectively stymied by regressive income and wealth taxation. As explained in my book, “the Quantity Theory of Money,” a tautology worked out in the 19th Century by the American economist Irving Fisher (1867-1947), among others, established that economic activity is constrained by the amount and velocity of money. My book explains how the QTM, expanded to account for income and wealth distribution, reveals the declining velocity of money attending growing inequality. This is a significant addition to economic theory, and it conclusively disproves some time-honored neoclassical myths, especially the “trickle-down” myth that the wealthiest among us can get richer without depriving others of real wealth.

Why “Neoclassical” Economics Misses All of This

            The mainstream story we get in the media is well off the mark. We are told that the economy is rebounding from the Great Recession, and that the economic future looks promising, but we are being thoroughly misled. Politics, as explored more thoroughly in the next post, provides part of the explanation for this: Even though President Obama and his policies are not responsible for our worsening situation, and in fact have restrained our growing depression, voters with no understanding of economics tend to  blame sitting presidents for the state of the economy. In an election year, the party in the White House is always anxious to nullify that impression. This year is only slightly unusual in that regard.

There are deep-seated academic reasons, however, for our misperceptions about how the economy works. The first seven chapters of my book contains a detailed history of the development of economic ideology, and this article will provide a brief summary of my findings:

Distribution, Until Quite Recently, Has Long Been Neglected

Although a preoccupation of the “classical” economists, the subjects of poverty and income and wealth distribution have been long neglected, and are relatively new to modern economics:

  • “Classical” economics began to develop in Europe during the Enlightenment, in the 17th Century (U.S. history.org, here). Ideas about trade, commerce, and production were explored by mainly British philosophers, notably from John Locke (1632-1704) to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). These two are famous for their “liberal” views and support of personal freedoms. The first comprehensive text on classical ideas was Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 by Adam Smith (1713-1790). According to Smith, the “science” of political economy “proposes two distinct objects: first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to provide the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services. It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign.” Smith and Mill were especially outspoken about the evils of poverty, idle wealth, and inequality;
  • All of the classical economists through Mill were “socialist” idealists, and Mill brought the classical school to near its zenith, just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning. In the late 19th Century, a new school — which has evolved into the modern “neoclassical” school — began to form around the idea that economics is about how to optimize personal profit and wealth. That school, for over 150 years, has ignored and suppressed the study and understanding of inequality, its mechanisms and its implications;
  • The early classical thinkers, notably Smith, T.R. Malthus (1766-1834) and David Ricardo (1772-1823), lived in a society experiencing severe epidemics and widespread poverty. They were greatly concerned with the topic of “economic rent,” and both Malthus and Ricardo opened their “Principles” books with that topic. Economic rent is compensation provided to individuals not contributing directly to production. In their day, these were the wealthy owners of agricultural land, a group especially despised by Smith for their perceived greed. Agriculture was labor intensive at that time, and “capital,” which consisted mainly of primitive plowing and harvesting equipment, was a relatively minor component of production. Thus, taxation aside, the amassing of great wealth by landowners was the major source of economic disparities;
  • The German Karl Marx (1818-1883) along with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) expanded the idea of “economic rent” to include all profit, which by definition consists of compensation in excess of direct costs of production. Marx predicted that unconstrained capitalism would ultimately destroy itself, leading to depression, unless it evolved into a more socially sustainable system;
  • In the classical tradition, an American contemporary Henry George (1839-1897), author of Progress and Poverty (1879), saw the accumulation of land rents as the underlying cause of poverty and depression. Thus, he joined Marx in describing a basic mechanism for the growth of inequality. George’s fame and influence during his lifetime was enormous, but his legacy has since been mostly denigrated and forgotten;
  • During the Great Depression, the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) published his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). Keynes created an intellectual sensation by explaining how consumption, saving and investment change over time. Keynes was sharply critical of the growing neoclassical ideology for painting a static, overly optimistic picture of an economy, incapable of explaining or anticipating growth or decline — presenting, in his view, a snapshot of an economy at full employment. In this regard, he was critical of the fundamental supply and demand based ideology of Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) and Arthur Cecil Pigou (1877-1979), among others;
  • Keynes was arguably the last thinker in the traditional classical line. He wanted to explain aggregate change over time, something neoclassicism could not do. Marshall, for example, simply extended the concept of supply and demand “equilibrium” to an entire economy, pointedly presuming that economies will find optimal growth automatically. Keynes himself did not escape this paradigm entirely, however: His full employment model was based on the idea that economies are optimal at full employment, and he argued that government action would be needed to ensure full employment. Nonetheless he continued to talk in terms of “equilibrium” (using the term nearly 90 times in his book) despite the fact that his own general theory implied that no force existed that would automatically correct economic downturn, and stressed the importance of “effective demand” to stimulate investment;
  • Keynes opened his final chapter, in which he developed the policy implications he believed his full employment model presented, with this:  “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” While inequality was on clearly on his mind, he nonetheless considered distribution to be arbitrary (and presumably without significant effect). That was fundamental error. The Austrian school, mainly Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) attacked his idea that government “fiscal policy” (deficit spending) could stimulate investment and growth on the ground that inflation was a more likely consequence than growth. The Austrians had a point, but the debate has remained inconclusive, even as Keynes’s influence has drastically declined;
  • The dynamics of distribution will ultimately explain the outcome of that debate, for stimulation and growth ultimately depend upon the way the proceeds of government borrowing are distributed throughout the economy, and upon the dynamic effects of Keynes’s “principle of effective demand,” which was perhaps the salient feature of his general theory;
  • Distributional ideas could not be expected to develop in the absence of comprehensive data on the distribution of income and wealth. Two decades later, in 1955, the American economist Simon Kuznets (1981-1985) asserted that an understanding of how economies grow and change would require understanding the mechanics of income distribution and inequality. At that time he complained of a serious paucity of data;
  • Kuznets’s warning went unheeded in the second half of the 20th Century, when income inequality stopped declining in America and began it marked rise, until the French economists Thomas Piketty (Paris School of Economics) and Emanuel Saez (Berkeley) compiled a comprehensive database of U.S. income from income tax records for the entire period (about a century) of U.S. federal income taxation. Their database, which has enabled refined research, has been available only for a little over a decade.

The Neoclassical Stranglehold

No sense of how wealth and income distribution affect economic health and well-being has yet to gain a foothold in mainstream economics, and the very idea that inequality has dynamic effects still seems alien to even supposedly objective observers of the economic record. Indeed, I had to develop the basics of distributional macroeconomics on my own. (See Chapters 8-10 of my book).

The truth once uncovered is not hard to understand, and the American electorate increasingly gets it, at least as a visceral reaction to their own economic experiences. But only a  small minority of economic professionals – a short list that includes Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, and Senator Bernie Sanders’s economic advisers – appear to understand the essential features of inequality dynamics. Mason Gaffney, the eminent Georgist economist and author of “The Corruption of Economics,” has long argued that the American neoclassical establishment corrupted economics in marginalizing Henry George and removing his popular ideas from academic orthodoxy. Here is an excerpt from Gaffney’s assessment of the consequences:

It took a generation, but by 1930 [the neoclassical school] had succeeded in reducing [Henry George] in the public mind. In the process of succeeding, however, they emasculated the discipline, impoverished economic thought, muddled the minds of countless students, rationalized free-riding by landowners, took dignity from labor, rationalized chronic unemployment, hobbled us with today’s counterproductive tax tangle, marginalized the obvious alternative system of public finance, shattered our sense of community, subverted a rising economic democracy for the benefit of rent-takers, and led us into becoming an increasingly nasty and dangerously divided plutocracy.

In the context recent economic developments, that summary seems less hyperbolic than it might have only a few years ago: The term “plutocracy” is commonly used these days to describe our society, increasingly by the renegade voters of both political parties who feel the system is “rigged” against them. Money buys pro-wealth law, trumping democracy, and it has bought favorable economics, too. Indeed, money underlies all power and social developments, one transaction after another, and it is delusional to imagine otherwise.

Although Gaffney speaks in conspiratorial terms, it is enough to know that neoclassicism favors the interests of wealth: Hence, the elitist academic and media institutions have always favored its development. I prefer to think of false ideologies as byproducts not of conspiracy, but of denialism, i.e., the rejection of objective science. We can think simply of the power of money driving objective science into a deep ideological black hole. From whatever perspective we choose to view them, there have been numerous conscious efforts to thwart ideas that diminish capitalism, or that are critical of the accumulation of great wealth or of extreme income inequality. These efforts should be of great concern to anyone who still believes economic ideology is the product of objective, scientific investigation.

Neoclassicism has assigned to “microeconomic” ideas the task of explaining aggregate growth, and developed the elaborate system of “supply side” thinking that provides the framework for mainstream economics. The supply-side approach is the ultimate embodiment of anti-Keynesian thinking: It obliterates consideration of effective demand from the causes and effects associated with aggregate activity, rendering impossible any realistic explanation of growth or decline (as Keynes dramatically explained), and negating any realistic evaluation of taxation or tax progressivity. As has become crucially important today, it removes from consideration all aspects of the macroeconomic significance of income and wealth distribution. The significance of inequality was routinely obscured, for this reason, even well before Kuznets warned the economics profession of its ultimate significance.

Right-wing ideologues have retrenched, and deflected, behind the interests of wealth in reducing government and avoiding tax increases on corporations and top incomes. Alarmingly, these agendas are reaching peak dominance today, even after 35 years of rising inequality. The responsibility for this lies with the neoclassical bias dominating the economics profession.

America’s dean of neoclassicism is Paul Samuelson, the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics. Over more than fifty years, he published 18 editions of his textbook Economics. Samuelson set himself up as the spokesperson and ultimate arbiter for the economics profession, inventing a “neoclassical synthesis” which purported to incorporate the best and most advanced ideas in economics. In reality, it emphasized the pro-capitalist themes of neoclassicism, at the expense of all competing points of view. Here are some of Samuelson’s major transgressions:

  • The contributions of John Maynard Keynes were severely marginalized. Credit for “business cycle” theory is given to other economists, ignoring the role of and explanation for the rise and fall of investment and demand inherent in Keynes’s revolutionary “general theory.” Implying (without discussion) that Keynesian theory had lost its vitality as a result of later developments in the field, this approach locked into place supply side ideology, and eviscerated (again without discussion) Keynes’s “principle of effective demand”;
  • This also protected from challenge the neoclassical myth that continuous growth and prosperity are inevitable, a myth he religiously promoted. Eventual recovery from recessions was presumed to be inevitable, and depressions were characterized as nothing more than severe recessions. Samuelson went to great lengths to assert the ultimate resiliency of capitalist markets. Characterizing Karl Marx’s theory of capitalist decline as the proposition that inequality would tend to grow over time, Samuelson in 1963 claimed that Marx’s theory had been “disproved” by the declining income inequality experienced in America after WW II;
  • After inequality had risen steadily for more than twenty years, however, in 2004 (along with William Nordhaus) Samuelson redoubled his efforts to marginalize Marx as an economic thinker, characterizing him as a disgruntled and unpopular socialist, and further emphasizing Arthur Okun’s popular thesis in Equality and Efficiency (1978) that reducing inequality would counter-productively reduce “efficiency.” He even re-wrote Adam Smith’s reference to the quasi-religious metaphor “the invisible hand” in The Wealth of Nations (1776), completely changing Smith’s meaning and making it appear that Smith supported the neoclassical myth of perfect efficiency, which he manifestly never did. Okun, it turns out, had no support for his nonsensical theory other than a citation to Smith’s invisible hand metaphor! His line of reasoning, incredibly, leaves the impression that inequality is a necessary component of prosperity and growth;
  • Approvingly following the lead of John Bates Clark (1847-1938) — a founder of American neoclassicism after whom an annual award to the most promising young American economist has been named — Samuelson drastically changed the concept of “economic rent” that had been so crucial to early classical economists, from money collected with no contribution of real value, to representing a higher price for a fixed quantity of output. This perverted view obscures the rent component of income, rendering income size irrelevant, and making insensible the idea that wealthy people could possibly make too much money.

Neoclassical, supply side ideology has so “emasculated the discipline,” as Gaffney put it, that debates about government policy, and indeed the role of government itself, are entirely dysfunctional and ineffectual. The ultimate objective of trivializing income and wealth inequality is, quite apparently, to avoid the taxation of top incomes and wealth. To this end, neoclassicism enables the obfuscation we have seen on tax policy, and on the need for progressive taxation, creating a fertile ground for the libertarian ideologues who now control the national government.

The Case for More Government

Here is a case study of neoclassicism’s deep corruption of our collective mentality on the role of government. Just two days ago, The New York Times (8/3/16, here) published an article by its experienced and influential economics reporter, Eduardo Porter, entitled “The Case For More Government, Not Less.” The opening paragraphs focused on what the American people already believe, minimizing the provision of new information to anyone not reading the entire article:

It may be hard to remember, but Americans once appreciated the government that serves them. That’s long gone.

Over the last six years, according to the Pew Research Center, four out of every five — or more — have said the government makes them feel either angry or frustrated. Last March, the ranks of the incensed included 78 percent of Bernie Sanders’s supporters and a whopping 98 percent of those backing Donald J. Trump.

More than half of voters — including 61 percent of Mr. Trump’s supporters — feel they are not keeping up with the rising cost of living. Three-quarters of Mr. Trump’s supporters feel that life for people like them is worse than it was 50 years ago.

This kind of reporting sets up a causal “feedback loop,” per George Lakoff: Over time, public perceptions and beliefs become self-reinforcing, resistant to change. Which helps explain why Porter continued with this:

These frustrated Americans may not fully realize it, under the influence of decades worth of sermons about government’s ultimate incompetence and venality. But there’s a strong case for more government — not less — as the most promising way to improve the nation’s standard of living.

Last month, four academics — Jeff Madrick from the Century Foundation, Jon Bakija of Williams College, Lane Kenworthy of the University of California, San Diego, and Peter Lindert of the University of California, Davis — published a manual of sorts. It is titled “How Big Should Our Government Be?” (University of California Press).

“A national instinct that small government is always better than large government is grounded not in facts but rather in ideology and politics,” they write. The evidence throughout the history of modern capitalism “shows that more government can lead to greater security, enhanced opportunity and a fairer sharing of national wealth.”

It is indeed a compelling case, unassailable to anyone familiar with Keynes’s long-ignored principle of effective demand, and this quotation from the article is spot on. The article laid out the authors’ recommendations for government strategy, which include redistributive policies like expanding unemployment and health insurance, paid sick leave, wage insurance, and “more resources for poor families with children and for universal early childhood education.” Americans are only beginning to understand a point Porter does not make, namely, that this stimulates economic activity because it circulates money mostly hoarded in the coffers of wealthy people and their corporations to people who are guaranteed to spend most or all of it. So the program’s cost remains in the forefront of the reader’s mind as the discussion continues:

This agenda won’t come cheap. They propose raising government spending by 10 percentage points of the nation’s gross domestic product ($1.8 trillion in today’s dollars), to bring it to some 48 percent of G.D.P. by 2065.

That might sound like a lot of money. But it is roughly where Germany, Norway and Britain are today. And it is well below government spending in countries like France, Sweden and Denmark.

This agenda, of course, is more popular among liberals than conservatives. Economists on the right insist that higher taxes and bigger governments reduce incentives to work and invest, harming economic growth. In one study, the Nobel laureate Edward Prescott argued that the higher taxes needed to fund a bigger government discouraged Europeans from working.

Porter notes that the conservative argument is “hardly watertight,” but in truth it actually leaks like a sieve, and Porter presents the arguments of “economists on the right” in a way that affords them far too much credibility: The idea that higher income taxation discourages work and investment is a false “trickle-down” myth that has been thoroughly disproved by a century’s worth of evidence, as I explain in my book. Porter is content to mention alternative factors contributing to fewer working hours in Europe, including “tight labor market regulations,” high value spent on free time. But, consistent with conservative economic thinking, Porter’s analysis derails on the subject of taxation:

Europe’s reliance on consumption taxes — which are easier to collect and have fewer negative incentives on work — allowed them to collect more money without generating the kind of economic drag of the United States’ tax structure, which relies more on income taxes.

Here Porter explicitly accepts the conservative “trickle-down” taxation dogma — and of course consumption taxes are extremely regressive, as they hit low-income and wealthy people equally, but are a much higher percentage of low incomes. The suggestion that European stimulus results from lower reliance on income taxation (if true) than on far more regressive consumption taxation is inherently anti-Keynesian, and it is wrong.

The link in this quotation is to a much earlier Porter article (“Combating Inequality May Require Broader Tax,” 11/27/12, here), in which he acknowledged that “raising more money from the wealthy might go a long way toward righting our lopsided economy,” and “may help us dig out of our immediate fiscal hole,” he nonetheless opined:

[I]t is unlikely to be enough to address our long-term needs. The experience of many other developed countries suggests that paying for a government that could help the poor and the middle class cope in our brave new globalized world will require more money from the middle class itself.

Many Americans may find this hard to believe, but the United States already has one of the most progressive tax systems in the developed world, according to several studies, raising proportionately more revenue from the wealthy than other advanced countries do. Taxes on American households do more to redistribute resources and reduce inequality than the tax codes of most other rich nations.

But taxation provides only half the picture of public finance. Despite the progressivity of our taxes, according to a study of public finances across the industrial countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we also have one of the least effective governments at combating income inequality. There is one main reason: our tax code does not raise enough money.

This paradox underscores two crucial lessons we could learn from the experience of our peers around the globe. The first is that the government’s success at combating income inequality is determined less by the progressiveness of either the tax code or the benefits than by the amount of tax revenue that the government can spend on programs that benefit the middle class and the poor.

A bit more reflection reveals that the whole analysis is misguided on the issue of progressiveness, with disastrous results:

  • One of the studies cited by Porter in this earlier article (“Income Inequality and Growth: The Role of Taxes and Transfers,” OECD, Economic Department Policy Notes No. 9, January 2012, here), correctly observed that: “The personal income tax tends to be progressive, while consumption taxes and real estate taxes often absorb a larger share of the current income of the less well-off”;
  • Porter’s views have not changed in nearly three years, for he still believes that Europe’s consumption taxation is more progressive;
  • The OECD study concluded that “tax and transfer systems reduce overall income inequality in all countries,” but this can be true only in countries where income inequality is actually declining. Porter acknowledged rising U.S. inequality in this earlier article: Since the recession of 2008, “93 percent of our income growthin the first two years of the economic recovery to the richest 1 percent of families, and only 7 percent to the rest of us;”
  • There are degrees of progressiveness, and income taxation within the top 1% is regressive. We could (and should) define the progressiveness of the entire tax system in terms of whether or not inequality is increasing. It is simply not true that “the United States already has one of the most progressive tax systems in the developed world”;
  • Porter adds that “Progressive taxes make it hard to raise money because they distort people’s behavior. They encourage taxpayers to reduce their tax liability rather than to increase their pretax income,” “high corporate taxes encourage companies to avoid them,” and “high taxes on capital income also encourage avoidance and capital flight.” This is the laundry list of conservative arguments against taxing the wealthy and their giant corporations, and it is completely bogus.

It is becoming increasing obvious that the conservative line is a bunch of malarkey: Corporations have extremely low, inequality producing taxation of capital income, as Piketty and Saez have conclusively demonstrated. Hundreds of billions of dollars of profits flow into their coffers annually. Yet, for them, tax avoidance is already a well-established way of life. Ignoring distribution has made it possible for them to conflate the effects of lowering taxes at the top with the opposite effects of lowering taxes farther down the income ladder. Lowering their taxes even further would merely add to the severe damage discussed above that the American economy and lower-income classes are already suffering.

Now we know what Eduardo Porter, and presumably the billionaire owners (Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim owned the largest share as of January, 2015, here) and the editorial board of The New York Times actually believe (or at least what they want us to believe) about inequality and tax economics. We must remember that it is thoroughly anti-Keynesian, and that Paul Krugman’s “neo-Keynesian” analyses are presumably similarly constrained: Krugman has consistently described inequality as merely a “political” problem, not an economic one. The next post, “The Terrifying Truth About Politics,” will discuss how, in this plutocratic environment, our headlong plunge toward disaster is likely to play out in American politics.

JMH – 8/5/2016

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The Grizzly Political Cost of Bad Economics

After Thursday night’s debate in Brooklyn between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, analysis focused mainly on candidate attitude and demeanor. How did each candidate perform? Was Sanders too sarcastic? Was Clinton too evasive? The reality is that strong language, frequent interruptions, and personal attacks are inevitable in the circus atmosphere of presidential debates: With nothing to look at but people standing at microphones, viewers tend to get bored in the absence of combative argumentation. The TV news producers know this. In this debate, personal attacks were invited from the outset when Wolf Blitzer opened by asking Bernie Sanders what he meant when he said Hillary Clinton was not “qualified” to be the president. (Let’s get ready to rummm-bbble!!) Amid a crowd outburst, Sanders emphasized the meaning he had always intended for that poor choice of words – that she has compromised her independence by accepting huge campaign contributions from wealthy donors. There seemed to be audible sighs of disappointment in the muted audience response.

This debate was more informative than some, however, and I have to credit both candidates for doing as well as they could under the circumstances. When it was over, viewers who listened closely had a better sense of differences in many major issue areas, such as foreign policy, immigration, election finance reform, and the minimum wage. I remain extremely concerned, however, that the hard core economic issues, like taxation and banking are so poorly understood – not just by the public in general but also by the media, the economics profession and the candidates themselves – that even if given more time, the candidates would still have left viewers feeling uninformed and perhaps even confused. I sincerely believe that both Democratic candidates have sincere, progressive intentions, and that the opposite is true of all of the Republican presidential hopefuls in this election cycle. The outcome of this election cycle is gravely important, for after 35 unabated years of trickle-down Reaganomics, American prosperity and democracy is rapidly declining, and with it our hopes for an acceptable future.

More and more people are coming to realize the serious implications of the 2016 election. Ironically, for the first time in decades, the New York primary this coming Tuesday will be pivotal for both parties. In today’s Albany Times Union, the paper’s editor Rex Smith has prfesented a near-perfect perspective on the situation in “Curtain rises on New York party shows” (here):

In most years, New York is more a backdrop for political theater than a place where the show gets fully staged. * * * But this election year neither party has gotten its show together as quickly as usual, so the audience here matters, for once. * * *

Polls suggest the frontrunners aren’t likely to be tripped up here Tuesday. A Marist-NBC4 poll released Friday showed Clinton widening her lead over Sanders. And Trump running away from Kasich and Cruz. That means that most of each party’s voters are comfortable with the prospect of autumn’s big nationwide show being a contest between the incremental liberalism of Clinton and the radical authoritarianism of Trump.

If that turns out to be the outcome when Wednesday dawns, it will mean that New York has passed up its chance to truly unsettle American politics, for good or ill. But whatever happens, change is coming.

Wins here would energize the campaigns of Sanders or Cruz, and either as the nominee of his party would unhinge long-standing realities, shifting the fulcrum of American politics to the left or right, with corresponding push-back from the other side.

The notable suggestion here is that New York has an opportunity to “truly unsettle American politics.” I would argue that a Sanders/Trump outcome in New York would reflect a deep seated disturbance that has already taken place and has been growing for a long time: It’s not that change is coming, but that change, driven by economic decline, is well underway. After the Wisconsin primary the New York Times reported that exit polls showed economic issues to be the greatest concern of voters of both parties, and it is the growing seriousness of economic issues that explains the political revolts in both parties.

This post will look beneath the candidate positions and voter concerns on major economic issues to identify the underlying reality at play in each instance. The use of terms like “liberal” versus “conservative,” or “moderate” versus “radical,” often generate conclusions with little more thought, and can generate wildly varying impressions depending upon what they mean to each reader. Thus, I will use he terms “Right” and “Left” as representing relative positions on a continuum of “Lorenz curves” (here), depicting the distribution of income. On the extreme hypothetical “Left,” every household has the same income and wealth. No communist economy ever came close to making such a  high degree of “liberalism” a reality; nor has any communist philosophy, contrary to popular myth, ever aspired to absolute equality. On the extreme “Right,” hypothetically, one household possesses all wealth and everyone in else the society is a serf. That represents no known reality today either, and so far as I know no “authoritarian” rule has ever come close to that reality.

On such a scale, it is generally understood that the American political parties have both shifted toward the Right over the last one-half century. The Republican Party has strenuously opposed all economic policies – such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and Food Stamps – that would effectively move distribution to the Left on the Lorenz Curve. The Democratic Party has also supported corporate welfare (subsidies and tax breaks) that move economic reality to the Right on the Lorenz Curve.

In this election cycle, we are witnessing rank and file Republicans rising up in great numbers to oppose the GOP establishment, supporting Trump because he promises a move to the Left on the Lorenz curve. Although this is fairly obviously a revolt, I offer this view from Chris Collins, a Republican representative from Western New York, from an Op-ed in the April 15 New York Times entitled “The Case for Trump” (here):

Americans are angry. I hear it from the former factory workers who lost their jobs or other countries because of bad trade deals, and veterans who wait months to see a doctor at a Veterans Affairs hospital and the small business owners who are struggling to stay afloat because of the Affordable Care Act’s crippling regulations. The professional politicians they trusted and supported have repeatedly sold out our country in favor of special interests and the status quo. Finally, millions of Americans are saying, “Enough is Enough.”

Although, as Collins observes, Trump endorses the arguments of the Right against Obamacare, and claims there is economic growth and job creation potential (as did Mitt Romney four years ago) in “buying and rebuilding distressed companies,” Collins also points out that Trump acknowledges the need to get our country “back on course and restore the possibility of the American dream for our children and grandchildren.” Trump supporters, he argues, want a chief executive to run the country, not a politician. In that view, of course, achieving growth and prosperity is nothing more than a business management problem. Thus, even as Trump endorses the faulty economics of Republican orthodoxy, it rejects the consequences of that orthodoxy, propelling him inexorably toward the GOP nomination.

Although Collins no doubt fails to see it this way, the rejection of Republican economic orthodoxy amounts to acknowledging a need to move to the Left on the Lorenz Curve. This is almost exactly the same perception of economic reality to which the revolution on the Left is responding in its support for Bernie Sanders. As we shall see, all of the internal inconsistencies and bad economics are on the Republican side, and the progressive economic arguments are correct.

The reason the Democratic Party hasn’t “gotten its show together” yet, as Rex Smith puts it, is that the Sanders supporters do not believe that the “liberal gradualism” of Hillary Clinton will be nearly enough to get us where we need to go. Thus, the Sanders campaign rejects Democratic Party orthodoxy in the same way Trump’s campaign rejects Republican orthodoxy, but again, only the Sanders revolution has the economics right. Clinton’s economics is about one-half correct, but for bad economic reasons her “gradualism” approach remains too far to the Right on the Lorenz Curve. This post intends to make that abundantly clear. Let’s begin with a review of the minimum wage issue.

The Minimum Wage

In the Brooklyn debate, the moderators focused much attention on the minimum wage issue, and reduced it to a relatively trivial dispute over each candidate’s past support for a national $15 hourly minimum wage. The current minimum wage in the United States is $7.25, and only seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted minimum wages in excess of $10.00, some of which, including New York’s and California’s $15 minimum wage are to be gradually implemented and fully effective on 12/31/2018 and 1/1/2022, respectively. (NCSL, 2016 Minimum Wage by State, here).

The current $7.25 minimum wage fails, in most instances,  to meet the current minimum poverty threshold computed by the Census Bureau (here). Before taxes, a full 40-hour workweek over 51 weeks would produce a pretax income of $14,790. That is under the poverty threshold for a two person household, even without any children under 18 to support. A $15 minimum wage would produce $30,600 in a year, barely enough (if it was effective in 2015) to meet the poverty threshold for a family of two parents and three children.

Several points should be discussed here: Because of inflation, $15 will be worth less in 2019 or 2020 than today, and so it will not go as far for financially strapped families than as suggested by these computations.

One argument against raising the minimum wage that has been pressed in the states is the claim that employer cost increases will force them to cut back on employment to maintain profit margins, and could cause small businesses to fold. These claims are insubstantial for several reasons:.That would happen only in instances where business prices are so constrained by competition they could not be raised in response to cost increases, but that is rarely the case in today’s market’s. Moreover, competitors typically face the same state-level minimum wage requirement, and all American  employers face the same national requirement.

There are macroeconomic benefits to raising the minimum wage: At either the state or federal level, an increase in the minimum wage will:

  • Reduce reliance on federal aid programs, like food stamps, freeing up tax dollars for other purposes;
  • Reduce subprime dis-saving and associated bad debt;
  • Increase direct spending on goods and services.

The net effect of reducing inequality is demonstrably to increase income growth. Thus, these three factors together would tend to stimulate the economy even if the increase is otherwise neutral in effect, because it would reduce income inequality. Moreover, employers are receive benefits offsetting the higher wage costs, because:

  • The stimulation of effective demand from wage increases in response to an increase in the minimum wage, through all of the above mechanisms, will provide offsetting revenues for employers;
  • Raising wages to meet a higher minimum wage will reduce the pressure for collective bargaining, and help avoid the potential cost of strikes and other labor relations strife.

At the state level, concerns about employers moving away from the state to avoid the minimum wage are unrealistic. Large employers, like Walmart, Lowes, Target, AT&T or Verizon, cannot move and continue to serve the same customer base, nor would they need to move. Smaller businesses have already been largely marginalized by or consolidated into the big companies, and “middle class” business income has significantly declined. An increase in the federal minimum wage eliminates any possible advantage of moving, and the similarity of most state minimum wages today suggests that little advantage currently exists.

Taking income and wealth distribution in effect, therefore, leads to the conclusion that raising the minimum wage will tend to increase business income, benefiting all marginal and small businesses that are struggling to survive. Increasing the minimum wage at the national level would have the greatest positive effect on growth.

Republicans routinely oppose increases in the minimum wage, because their supply-side ideology prevents recognition of the positive income effects I have identified. Instead, they make strained supply-side arguments. Ted Cruz, for example, a few days ago argued that “I think the minimum wage systematically hurts the most vulnerable” (here). His reasoning was that when you order food on an iPad at a fast food restaurant “you’re seeing the minimum wage.” That’s a flawed argument: Although iPad ordering may increase ordering efficiency, it does not necessarily reduce labor requirements at fast food restaurants. Even if technological enhancements reduce labor requirements, there is no priori reason to assume that investing in the more capital intensive approach will likely reduce total cost of output, and that low end labor cost would be a decisive factor.

Donald Trump is the only Republican  candidate for the presidency in the past two years, so far as I am aware, who has ever supported an increase in the minimum wage. However, back in August of 2015 (here), he argued that “having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this county.”  He suggested that decisions to locate or relocate were based on differences among the states in the minimum wage, but he quickly backed away from that insensible claim, arguing:”But we are no longer competing against one state against the other. … It’s the United States against other places. Where the taxes are lower, where the wages are lower, where lots of things are” lower.

With “lots of things” driving business out of this country, it would hardly make sense to try to prevent the exodus by holding wages, down. The median income has fallen ten percent over the last eight years, and real incomes of the bottom 80% have been stagnant since 1980. And as higher paying jobs have relocated out of the country, the American work force has had to adjust to taking the available, lower-paying work. Reflecting this shift of the workforce to lower-paying jobs, there has been a steady shift in the “most common” job in the states from “secretaries” in 1978 to “truck, delivery and tractor drivers” in 2014 (here).

Of course, minimum wage requirements apply to secretaries and truck drivers too; but the concentration of truck drivers is increasing because these are all jobs that cannot be exported. None of this provides a basis for not increasing the minimum wage. The GOP claim that an increase in the minimum wage would hurt low income people and business is baseless.

Even though the minimum wage is important as a backstop against increased poverty, and the drift of more and more households toward the poverty threshold, the problem of low and declining real incomes across the board in America is a much bigger problem. More recently, The Guardian (here) reported that Trump “flip-flops” on wages and the minimum wage issue:

Donald Trump, billionaire Republican presidential frontrunner, has changed his mind about wages: Americans aren’t earning enough. He’s also not keen on Wall Street. The shift has Trump on a collision course with Democrat Bernie Sanders – while oddly agreeing with many of his points.

“Wages in are [sic] country are too low, good jobs are too few, and people have lost faith in our leaders. We need smart and strong leadership now!” Trump tweeted on Monday.

The opinion appeared to reverse what the Republican frontrunner said in November during the fourth Republican debate. Asked if he was sympathetic to the protesters demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Trump said: “I can’t be.”

This report falsely conflates the minimum wage with wage levels generally. There is no inconsistency between Trump’s position that the minimum wage is not too low (which as just discussed is not persuasive) and his recognition that American wages in general are too low. The latter argument pits him, as he responds directly to the demands of his middle-aged white working-class support base, squarely against the GOP establishment by admitting that income inequality is a macroeconomic problem.

Increasing the minimum wage will provide modest economic benefits, and slightly reduce the growing number of former middle class income earners that are drifting toward and over the poverty line. Increasing the minimum wage is a good idea, and we should do it, but that won’t begin to counter the damage to lower income groups caused by the forces of growing inequality.

Breaking Up the Big Banks

A more significant issue addressed in the Brooklyn debate is the question of breaking up the big banks. Hillary Clinton argued that Sanders was remiss in not explaining how he would break up the big banks and leaving it to the banks to work out, but then, curiously, she pointed out that the banks have been charged in the Dodd-Frank legislation with working out their own plans for dissolution in the case of another banking crisis. Sanders correctly argued that developing the details of dissolution must be left to the big banks in the first instance.

Clinton attempted to minimize the danger of a big bank failure, arguing as Krugman did in his recent Op-ed “Sanders Over the Edge” (here) that it was the smaller “shadow” banks, not the big banks, that were “really at the heart of the financial crisis.” Incredibly, Krugman has missed the point: It is the big banks who were bailed out by U.S. taxpayers to prevent economic collapse, and the burden of the bailout fell disproportionately on low income groups. The reporter Matt Taibbi immediately, and correctly, shredded Krugman’s Op-ed in a Rolling Stone article “Why the Banks Should Be Broken Up” (here).

Clinton argued she would definitely act, should the need arise, to prevent a recurrence of that cataclysmic event. Sanders responded that this wait and see approach is inadequate and the banks simply must be broken up now. He reacted sarcastically to Clinton’s argument that she has “called out” the big banks in the past. The media argued that chiding Clinton in this way was inappropriate, but there is a serious point here: The concern of the Sanders campaign about the big donations Clinton is getting from Wall Street corporations, and her unwillingness to release the transcripts of private speeches she has given at Wall Street gatherings (a point she waffled on when Dana Bash pressed her about it) cannot be easily dismissed in connection with enforcing Wall Street reform.

Regardless, Sanders is correct on the issue of breaking up the big banks. Dana Bash pointed out in her question that the Federal Reserve and FDIC had just jointly announced (here) that 5 of the 6 largest banks are still too big to fail (The New York Times, here): Eight years after passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation, these banks still had not developed adequate “living will” provisions for dissolving in the case of another crisis in a way that would prevent the need for taxpayer bailouts to avoid catastrophe.The danger of another such event is growing with significant debt bubbles inflating that could burst at any time. It is common knowledge that regulators and economists did not see the 2008 crash coming, and it is irresponsible to ignore that risk now, knowing how dangerous it would be to put “living will” provisions to the test in an emergency.

In the debate, Sanders appropriately held firm to his commitment to break up the big banks now, rather than wait for another disaster to take place. The media characterize Sanders’s positions as “radical” but there is nothing radical about avoiding an extremely debilitating crash that would likely hasten the onset of another Great Depression. The “living will” approach, quite frankly, was a stop-gap measure that avoided dealing immediately with the “to big to fail” problem, preserving the high profitability of the  private banking system.

Of course, the GOP will never support tampering with its money-making machine. There is no difference between Trump and Cruz in this regard. Given the general media ignorance of the banking issue, the political advantage falls to the GOP: An unwary public is being misled into ignoring a very dangerous situation.

Inequality and Growth

The same can be said about the popular perspectives on inequality and growth, and the role of taxation in controlling both, that has permeated federal policy and infected the political atmosphere in every election cycle. Because of the long-term dominance of economic thinking by “neoclassical” economics, almost everyone is blinded to the extent of the danger we face from inequality growth. I have written a thorough account of the failure of the economics profession and of the disastrous consequences the “neoclassical synthesis” has had for the U.S. and world economies. Hopefully, it will soon be published, but I have been blogging my thesis here for several years, so I’ll just summarize the basic points here:

  • As income inequality grows, “economic” (i.e., income) growth declines, substantially and, over time, exponentially. This is consistently proved over the entire century of income tax records, and theoretically required by the quantity theory of money;
  • U.S. inequality has grown since 1980 because the wealthiest Americans and their corporations have been allowed to take in too much money (profit and rent) for the value they provide, and have been allowed (through reduced taxation) to keep too much of it as accumulated wealth;
  • This has led to steady decline, and will lead eventually to depression and collapse; after 35 years of the Reagan Revolution we have already suffered one collapse (the Crash of 2008) and we can expect more as our depression worsens.

The officially unrecognized signs of this debilitating process are everywhere, but it has advanced to the point where economic factors have caused a political revolution that is ripping apart both political party establishments. Consider the following evidence which is becoming increasingly apparent over the last two years:

  • Income growth has been gradually declining for several decades, as inequality has grown, and recently aggregate growth has fallen to one percent or less. Because aggregate growth includes the high income growth going to the top, lower incomes are necessarily declining;
  • The median income has fallen 10% since the Crash of 2008; and the number of households living in poverty or near poverty is increasing rapidly as below median incomes decline ever faster;
  • Interests rates have been near zero for several years, an unprecedented failure of the monetary system which means the demand for capital remains very low;
  • The low demand for capital is explained by the gradual shrinking of the economy. According to EPI estimates, between 1983 and 2009, 40.9% of all wealth gains went to the top 1%, and 81.7% of all wealth gains went to the top 5%. Meanwhile, the bottom 60% lost 7.5% of its wealth. Growth in the level of economic activity therefore continues to decline;
  • Meanwhile, wealth is accumulating at the top. Corporations increasingly buy back outstanding shares of their stock, reducing their payout obligations, a clear sign of economic contraction, and as the demand for investment funds in the U.S. shrinks, several trillions of dollars have been removed to offshore accounts.

Clearly, the GOP narrative that income growth is merely a business management problem is false: The “supply-side” neoclassical economics that sustains that narrative fails to address the need for effective consumer demand to promote growth.

Taxation

Ever since the Reagan Revolution began, its cornerstone policy has been reducing the income tax burden on the wealthy and their corporations. This point, thoroughly addressed in previous posts, will only to be highlighted here: The top income tax rate on ordinary income was reduced from 71% to 35% since 1980, and the top marginal capital gains tax rate has been kept considerably lower. The justification for this systematic tax avoidance has been the supply-side claim that lower taxation of the wealthy encourages increased investment and job creation, and promotes income growth. That “trickle-down” argument is just the opposite of the truth, as is finally becoming abundantly clear. It remains the official economic policy of Republican orthodoxy, nonetheless, and every GOP presidential candidate this year has promoted more tax decreases for the rich and more tax relief for  corporations, even as they profess a desire to promote growth. On February 22, 2016, Jackie Calmes reported in the New York Times (here):

The tax plans of the Republican presidential candidates would cut federal revenues as much as $12 trillion over a decade, a post-World War II record eclipsing the deep tax cuts of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. And they would come just as America faces the costs of its aging baby-boom generation.

The combination of the tax cuts’ size and timing has many tax and budget policy analysts questioning their viability. The Republican rivals routinely denounce the current $14 trillion debt, but none has said how he would offset the revenues lost to his tax cuts, beyond unspecified cuts to domestic programs and repeals of some existing tax breaks.

Each candidate has said his tax cuts are needed to promote work, saving, investment and faster economic growth.

“I believe by cutting taxes and simplifying the tax code, we will grow our economy and create more taxpayers rather than more taxes,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has said.

Tax policy groups agree generally, but only if the revenue losses are offset by budget savings that avoid piling up more debt that would be counterproductive to spurring the economy.

Tax policy groups generally agree, we are told, with trickle-down economics. Thus, the prevalent mainstream belief is that trickle-down works in the long run, so long as we avoid too much additional short-run debt accumulation by cutting government spending. This caveat is the so-called “austerity doctrine” which has proved unworkable at home and abroad for decades. Both ideas are dead wrong: Income and wealth do not trickle back down, but accumulate and concentrate at the top, as just discussed.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders advocate higher taxes for the rich, but the Clinton “liberal gradualism” as described by Rex Smith (and that was just today endorsed by his newspaper, the Albany Times Union, here) ignores the continuing drag on economic growth and concentration of income and wealth at the top resulting from the tax decreases at the top that created this problem to begin with. That’s a frame of mind I call “partial trickle-down.”

            Paul Krugman’s “Partial Trickle-down”

            This remaining difference between Sanders an Clinton will prove to be the most significant of all, and it can be traced back to Paul Krugman’s belief that inequality is just a “political” problem. As I have pointed out countless times, he fails to recognize the concentration of income at the top and the associated transfers of wealth. This perspective has led him, somehow, to recognize that reducing taxes on top incomes will not stimulate growth but to deny or overlook the fact that those tax cuts actually reduced growth. From that erroneous perspective, it is easy to deny that restoring the previous levels of taxation would restore the previous level of growth and, more to the point, that doing so is needed to restore that growth. In short, Krugman misses the entire mechanism of income redistribution associated with income inequality growth.

This is no trivial problem – it is a problem with major dimensions. Not only can we not rely on increasing the minimum wage to provide any significant stimulus, but nothing else is available to stop the huge decline. Fiscal and monetary policy are no longer available to influence growth. Fiscal policy only works if you eventually pay back the loans. However, we now have over $18 trillion of national debt that can never be paid off under the current tax structure, and the top 1% has gained roughly $25 trillion of additional wealth since 1980, about one-half of that concentrated in the top 0.1% of wealth holders. Inequality is our most serious economic problem, and to prevent the accelerating slide toward a collapse into another Great Depression there is no alternative to greatly increasing the taxation at the top.

As I have pointed out, the Congressional Budget Office has projected that by 2021 the interest on the national debt will exceed the entire defense budget, the nation’s largest discretionary budget item, and that projection was made without taking into account the drag on growth created by the ever-growing inequality. Our government is effectively bankrupt, because it cannot repay its existing debt, and it must borrow to pay the interest on that debt. It is not at all clear that the dollar can be sustained long enough to get through the first term of the next presidency.

It is their perception of the gravity of the situation, and the extensive evidence of decline, that led Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley to become the first U.S. Senator to announce his support for Bernie Sanders on April 13 (here), and Alison McLean Lane, an Albany County Legislator, to support Sanders in a letter to the Times Union published April 14 (here). In support of their endorsements, both offered their observations of the continuing long-term decline they have experienced. Lane offered this explanation:

The school district my 4-year-old twins will attend this fall has a student body of which 11 percent are homeless and 36 percent live in poverty. If I sent my children today to the same university I attended, it would bankrupt us.

Here are three more alarming statistics that explain why this epidemic is in this legislative district: In 1980, 11.7 percent of the entire income of New York went to the top 1 percent; in 2015, that number soared to 30.2 percent; yet, America’s suburban poverty rate is 11.8 percent, the highest since 1967. Our entire state should be screaming from the rafters over statistics like this.

We live in the world’s wealthiest nation, yet our country has one of the highest poverty rates of any developed nation. We have homeless veterans and children, but our nation spent $2 billion a day on two wars. We could have housed, fed and clothed these vulnerable populations.

Merkley offered a similar assessment:

I grew up in working-class Oregon. On a single income, my parents could buy a home, take a vacation and help pay for college. My father worked with his hands as a millwright and built a middle-class life for us.

My parents believed in education and they believed in the United States. When I was young, my father took me to the grade school and told me that if I went through those doors, and worked hard, I could do just about anything because we lived in America. My dad was right.

Years later, my family and I still live in the same working-class community I grew up in. But America has gone off track, and the outlook for the kids growing up there is a lot gloomier today than 40 years ago.

Many middle-class Americans are working longer for less income than decades ago, even while big-ticket expenses like housing, health care and college have relentlessly pushed higher.

I have discussed in earlier posts how neoclassical economics, especially the “neoclassical synthesis” promoted by Paul Samuelson (Paul Krugman’s PhD faculty adviser) over the last 60 years, has perverted the thinking of mainstream economists. That perverted thinking insists that our economy will continue to grow, and to thrive “in the long run” despite continuous evidence that the alleged pendulum forces (a la Alfred Marshall, circa 1880) and the forces of the “rocking horse” (a la Paul Samuelson, circa 1953) are just fantasies. Now, at last, enough evidence has accumulated for people to seriously question the very foundations of modern mainstream economics.

That is what I have done. No one will take my word for the advanced degree of the neoclassical perversion, however, so I have written it up in a 500-page book that I am seeking to publish as soon as possible. This election cycle makes this summary of my findings essential.

Conclusion

In the general election, it will be crucial to elect the democratic presidential candidate, and to restore a democratic majority to both houses of Congress. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee, Bernie Sanders (as his wife Jane has already announced, in the April 13 interview with Jane Sanders entitled “The need for party unity,” here) will vote for her, and we can expect Sanders to do everything in his power to dissuade his supporters from defecting, and to encourage them to vote for Clinton, and for Democrats across the board. This, by the way, was a revealing caution from Jane Sanders, given that her husband is still in the race and has won seven of the last eight primary caucuses.

If Sanders does not get the nomination, we must fervently hope that Clinton wins and that what she has learned in this election cycle has informed her natural progressive tendencies sufficiently that she will be able to avoid the major catastrophe that looms ahead in the not-too-distant future. Basic elements of the Sanders economic plan should be adopted for the Democratic Party’s platform in the fall.

JMH – 4/17/2016

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Economic Decline and the Failure of Politics in 2016

I’m over seventy years old, and in my view the 2016 election cycle is easily the strangest, and probably the most historically significant, of my lifetime.  The U.S and world economic and political situation is more dangerous today than it has been at any time since World War II. Economic issues always control elections, but economic issues are so important this year that they are causing radical changes in political orthodoxy. Both of the major political parties in this primary cycle face revolution as voters mount a major revolt against their party establishment’s perspectives and positions.

In the GOP, great numbers of voters are turning to Donald Trump, and many Democratic voters are turning to Bernie Sanders. This year, the New York State primaries are pivotal for both parties, and both of these candidates were campaigning yesterday (April 11) in my home area of Albany, New York. The political firestorm that raced through my home town reaffirmed my impression of the disintegration of “politics as usual” in this campaign cycle.

The new political revolution is bottomed on the failure of the economy. Lurking in the background, however, is the failure of the economics profession, both political parties, the media, and the voting population to fully grasp the danger posed by growing inequality. This has given the contentiousness in the debates of both parties a bizarre character. The Democratic race has been especially unpredictable, because the two candidates agree on the goals but convey a very different sense  of urgency about meeting them.

Despite its overwhelming importance in our lives, everyone avoids the topic of “economics” like the plague. The reason economics is regarded as such a “dismal” topic is that almost no one understands how the economy actually works.  This is not a new problem: In every election cycle, enormous public ignorance and confusion have invited an endless parade of distortions, false claims and misrepresentations by politicians. In an atmosphere in which exaggeration and falsehood are expected, even the most objective media analysts have steered away from directly addressing the factual substance of economic issues: In the heart of any campaign season, it is so much easier for broadcast media chit-chat to focus on voter preferences and delegate counts, and the candidates’ positions on issues are routinely reduced to slogans and sound bites.

This campaign cycle has been no exception, but the result in 2016 has been extremely surreal. The Republican Party is virtually dissolving before our eyes, and the Democratic party is also in a major crisis. The current state of political confusion, and the class warfare that perpetuates it, has resulted in what is shaping up to be the ugliest presidential campaign season since WW II. The reason, I submit, is the gradual decline of our economy over many years and the rebellion, at long last, of the victimized middle- and lower-class income earners against the economic establishment.

The GOP and the Trump Conundrum

The primaries have narrowed the race for the Republican presidential nomination down to a choice between two candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The field has narrowed substantially in the last two months, and Cruz, who eked out a victory in the Iowa caucus on February 1 after Trump boycotted the Fox News debate before the caucus, is now the only viable Trump opponent still standing. Cruz easily won the Wisconsin primary on April 5 when Trump’s popularity began to fade in light of Mitt Romney’s blistering repudiation in early March (here), and the outrage that followed Trump’s interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the eve of the primary, where he argued for punishment of women who get illegal abortions.Trump has also aroused concern about his fitness for the presidency, for reasons like his cavalier support for a nuclear arms race among smaller countries and his argument for the potential offensive use of nuclear weapons.

Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump passed through New York’s Capital District in recent days, as did Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is staying in the race in case of a deadlocked convention. The Albany Times Union extensively reported yesterday’s events, including the “3 cases for change” presented by Kasich, Sanders, and Trump. The newspaper’s “Election 2016 pages reported attendance of 500 at the Kasich rally in Troy, 4,000 at the Sanders rally in Albany, and 15,000 at the Trump rally in Albany. Whatever his prospects for winning the Republican nomination may actually be, Donald Trump is still drawing large crowds to his rallies.  

Ted Cruz passed through the area about a week ago, holding a rally in Scotia (here). Cruz has never been near the top of the GOP preferred list of presidential candidates. He is an extremely right-wing “tea party” libertarian, highly unpopular within his own party, who would think nothing of shutting down the government, come hell or high water. He is a religious fanatic who supports government by biblical law (here). From his perspective, federal taxes on the wealthy and corporations cannot be too low, and his stump speech in Scotia reiterated his proposal for a regressive flat tax. Regardless, some Republican voters see Cruz as the only viable alternative at this point. An attendee at the Scotia rally from Clifton Park, Rich Rivetz, was quoted as saying: “Trump is psychotic and Kasich doesn’t have a chance, so there you have it.”

Donald Trump’s popularity in this primary season, despite his many drawbacks, has an anti-establishment  economic explanation: As the GOP establishment disintegrates, the middle-aged, working-class, white male segment of its base, the locus of the party’s racists, malcontents, and misogynists, has gravitated to Trump and, until recently, Trump’s supporters have been impervious to his lack of political maturity. These voters are hearing from Trump what they have been waiting for someone to say, namely, that the GOP establishment has sold them out, pandering for their support while reneging on its promise to create jobs and raise incomes. They are hurting economically, and as their incomes and standard of living steadily decline they are, at long last, starting to see themselves as victims of the corporate oligarchy that runs the GOP and the country. Consider this succinct summary by Michael Maiello in “The Republican Civil War Has Begun,” Rolling Stone, March 25, 2016 (here):

The conservative intelligentsia – the collection of free traders, tax cutters and government shrinkers who have dictated the Republican Party’s agenda since the Eighties – have had it with the losers of globalization who make up a significant portion of the party’s base: the white males of modest education who have been most full-throated in their support of Donald Trump.

In the mainstream organs like the op-ed pages of The New York Times or the editorials of The Wall Street Journal, right-wing columnists might support using the Republican convention process to deny Trump the nomination, but they discuss it in language that offers some respect to the legitimate anger of Trump’s supporters. Last week, David Brooks tried to play nice (here), writing, “Well, some respect is in order. Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams.”

Brooks’ niceties will prove too weak a dam to hold back the anger that conservative intellectuals indulge with every Trump victory. The Trump supporters might register Republican and have been counted on to vote the party’s way in past elections (flirting for a while with Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, then voting for George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole against the hated Bill Clinton in the general) but they are, from the point of view of right-leaning think tanks, pretty lousy conservatives.

Trump’s appeal, remarkably, seems to extend across the entire base of Republican and Independent voters, despite his obvious shortcomings: Economic adversity is not limited to middle-aged white male voters, and Trump is likely gaining broad support for his attack on the undemocratic nature of the primary delegate selection process. The Democratic Party faces the same problem, of course: In American politics, there never has been a guarantee that a party’s most popular candidate will get the party’s nomination.

The GOP Strategy for Success

But there is a more fundamental explanation for Trump’s popularity. The GOP is a minority party: Gallup figures released in January 2015 (here) revealed that in 2014 a record 43% of voters identified as Independent, with 30% identifying as Democrat and 26% as Republican.Because it represents and promotes the interests of only about 1% of voters, it is remarkable that the GOP has been able to control the U.S. Congress as much as it has over the years.

In the days of monarchies, when political power was inherited, economic inequality could be imposed by force. In a “democracy,” however, the masses must be swindled into supporting policies against their own interests. The GOP has accomplished that feat with a combination of strategies, including deflection away from economic issues, and catering to all forms of social and religious prejudice and discontent, such as racial bigotry and opposition to women’s rights. On issues where facts are important but reality gets in the way, such as climate change, the GOP has been known for its lies and hypocrisy.Since the Reagan Administration, there has been a persistent GOP call for lower taxes on the rich and their corporations. Republicans have used a perversion of economics known as “voodoo economics” – a “trickle-down” fantasy supporting ever more tax reductions at the top. Every Republican candidate for the presidency this year supports lower taxes for the rich and for corporations.

Controlling U.S. taxation has not been enough to satisfy the ultra-rich, however. In the last few years substantial evidence has emerged of tax avoidance on a massive scale, totaling many trillions of dollars, as corporations have moved their legal residences out of the country, and massive sums are secretly placed in off-shore accounts (See, e.g., “Don’t Blame Panama. Tax Evasion is a Global Problem,” by Juan Carlos Varela, President of Panama, here).

The help of mainstream economics has been enlisted to persuade people that the wealthy can get wealthier without limit, with no harm to anyone else. Only the widespread aversion to the “dismal science” has permitted this fairly obvious falsehood to go unrecognized. But even ordinary people with no background in economics are beginning to see clearly that the oligarchy has gone too far. Inequality growth is way out of control, and people are enduring its effects. The wonder is not that the GOP is losing the support of the base it has betrayed, but that it has taken this long for the political revolution to take place.

The Democratic Dilemma

A Salada tea bag I have seen several times, the latest being on a work break today, says that: “Among economists, the real world is often a special case.” That puts it mildly: We’ve been deeply misled, for more than 120 years, by an elitist ideology called “neoclassical” economics, an ideology in which assumptions and presumptions are routinely substituted for real world evidence. I’ve been researching, writing, and blogging about this problem, and about the enormous threat posed by income inequality, for more than four years. Our popular attachment to bad ideology has been so profound that, I fear, that realistic, fact-based perspectives on how the economy really works will not coalesce rapidly enough to avoid the collapse of the U.S. economy into an even deeper depression. The forces that create inequality are still at work, unabated, and the process is accelerating. The collapse of our political orthodoxy is a symptom of that process.

With the GOP disintegrating, the Democratic Party ought to have a reasonable opportunity not only to win the Presidency in November, but also to regain control of both houses of Congress. Then the United States might be able to moonwalk back from the brink of economic disaster. However, there have been recent signs of discord and confusion within the Democratic party as well.

It is fair to say that before the primaries began, Hillary Clinton expected to win the Democratic nomination fairly easily, and that the enormous success of the Sanders campaign has been as unexpected as the success of the Trump campaign. Sanders, who lost narrowly in the Iowa caucuses, has won most of the primaries since Super Tuesday. He won in Michigan on March 8, and he won five straight primaries before winning by a large margin in Wisconsin on April 5 (here). A breakdown of the voting in Wisconsin reported by the New York Times helps understand why:

  • The Wisconsin voters cited the economy as their top concern
  • On the issues, voters significantly favored Sanders who were most concerned about income inequality (66%/34%), the economy and jobs (54%/46%), and health care (53%/47%), as did those who were concerned about the effect of international trade on U.S. jobs (54%/45%). Voters who were most afraid about terrorist attacks leaned toward Clinton (56%/43%), as did those who felt the U.S. role in world affairs should increase (55%/44%). Those who want the U.S. to be less active in world affairs favored Sanders (74%/25%).
  • Age was a huge factor. The youngest reported age group, 18-29, overwhelmingly supported Sanders (81%/18%), as did the 30-44 age group (66%/33%), while the 45-64 age group leaned toward Clinton (54%/46%) and the 65 and older group overwhelmingly supported Clinton (63%/37%).
  • Women favored Clinton 50%/49%, but men favored Sanders 63%/36%.

Clinton was stung by the extent of her loss to Sanders in Wisconsin, and with a new sense of desperation, her campaign developed a plan to win the primary contest in her adoptive home state of New York which was reported by CNN on April 6 in this report: “Clinton plan: Defeat Sanders, then unify Democratic party.” According to the report:

The Clinton campaign has been watching these Wisconsin results come in, and the delegate race of course is tight there, but the reality is they’re running out of patience. So they’re going to begin deploying a new strategy, it’s going to be called disqualify him, defeat him and then they can unify the party later. Disqualify him, defeat him, and unify the party later.

            The Gun Control Issue

As reported in the Albany Times Union  on April 7, The AP reported on the initial thrust of this strategy:

Armed with a blistering tabloid cover, Hillary Clinton is pitting Bernie Sanders against the parents of children murdered in Sandy Hook, part of an effort to punch her way into the critical New York primary.

The inflammatory rhetoric underscores the importance of the April 19 New York contest to her campaign and the mounting frustration of Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, with the lingering primary battle.

That irritation spilled out into the public arena Wednesday, when Clinton released a flurry of attacks on Sanders, questioning his truthfulness, preparedness for the presidency and loyalty to Democratic party principles.

The Sandy Hook massacre was used in an attempt to characterize Sanders as opposed to gun control and unsympathetic to victims of gun violence. The AP article continued:

During an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday morning, Clinton pointed to a New York Daily News cover criticizing Sanders for saying he did not think victims of a gun crime should be able to sue the manufacturer. His comments came when the newspaper’s editorial board asked him about a wrongful death lawsuit against a rifle maker over the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “That he would place gun manufacturers’ rights and immunity from liability against the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook is just unimaginable to me,” said Clinton, who has long sought to highlight the candidates’ differences on guns.

In the interview with the Daily News editorial board, Sanders said he did not think gun crime victims should be able to sue gun manufacturers. But he did say people should be able to sue dealers and manufacturers who sell when they know “guns are going to the hands of wrong people.” He also said he supported a ban on assault weapons.

This article correctly reported Sanders’ reaction. In my opinion, this was a cheap shot by the Daily News on behalf of the Clinton campaign. I watched the interview, and the Daily News editorial staff was clearly gunning for Sanders, looking for a sound bite that could be used to suggest that Sanders was opposed to gun control.  In response to a question about his views on gun control, Sanders replied that his gun control agenda is the same as Obama’s: He supports efforts to strengthen and expand background checks, to do away with the gun show loophole, and to eliminate the ability to buy a gun legally and sell it to someone who is a criminal.

Sanders was then asked about the Connecticut lawsuit in which the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are attempting to sue the manufacturer of the assault rifle used in the massacre. After Sanders clarified that the precise question he was asked was whether he believes victims of gun violence should “be able to sue” gun manufacturers, he said “No, I do not.” At that point the interviewer, having obtained his desired sound bite, tried to move on: “I know we’re short on time – two quick questions. Your website talks about…” But Sanders continued, finishing his answer: “But I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of the wrong people. So somebody walks in and says, ‘I’d like ten thousand rounds of ammunition, you know, there might be grounds for that suit. But if you sell me a legal product — what you’re really saying…” The interviewer interrupted at that point, asking whether the AR-15 assault rifle “should never have been in the hands of the public to begin with.” Sanders answered unequivocally, “I do not support the sale of assault weapons in the United States.”

Sander’s record on gun control has been thoroughly vetted, as the Daily News editors must have known. In the CNN Democratic Primary debate in Las Vegas on October 13, 2015, for example, Sanders said: “Bernie Sanders has a D-minus voting rating from the NRA. Back in 1988, when I first ran for Congress, I supported a ban on assault weapons,” and he lost that election.

For me, this episode with irresponsible journalism by the Daily News editorial board marked a low point in the Democratic primaries. Shortly thereafter, Sanders made his now famous statement that Hillary Clinton is not “qualified” to be president. That unfortunate comment was made with reference to the big donations her PAC receives from corporate donors, but nonetheless, it was a very poor choice of words. Sanders has since retracted that statement.

Although there are signs in the last few days that the solidarity the Democratic Party needs to win in November may be repairing, the New York primary is crucial to both candidates, and we’ll have to see how the Clinton/Sanders debate goes Friday evening in Brooklyn.

The Crucial Economic Issues

Paul Krugman, Hillary Clinton’s economic adviser, has dangerously contributed to this divisiveness, hawking for the Clinton campaign.  In “Sanders Over the Edge,” New York Times, April 8, 2016 (here) Krugman harshly condemned Sanders:

On many major issues — including the signature issues of his campaign, especially financial reform — he seemed to go for easy slogans over hard thinking. And his political theory of change, his waving away of limits, seemed utterly unrealistic.

In my last post on this blog, I pointed out how Krugman teamed and other mainstream economists in the Democratic Party establishment to improperly attribute an unrealistic Congressional Budget Office economic growth projection to Gerald Friedman, the Sanders campaign’s economic adviser. The argument was that Sanders is making promises that cannot be kept, and that the Clinton plan – which is essentially to move slowly on economic reforms – is the sensible approach to take. That was an erroneous critique, however, and it seriously misrepresented the Sanders economic report. Krugman appears to be alluding to that critique here with his argument that Sanders is “waving away” limits.

In this article, Krugman lashes out at the proposal to break up the big banks with a dubious argument that the crisis in the Crash of 2008 centered on “shadow banks” that “weren’t necessarily that big.” Krugman says that “pounding the table about big banks misses the point.” Frankly, Krugman has missed the point about the growth of income inequality all along, claiming in his 2012 book that inequality is just a “political” problem. And it was not the smaller shadow banks that had to be bailed out by taxpayers after the Crash of 2008. The wealthy investment class recovered their losses after the Crash, but lower-income classes, which lost an estimated $7 trillion, have not recovered. The cost to taxpayers is a major point that Krugman is missing, and it is a big reason for the success so far of the Sanders and Trump campaigns against the respective party establishments.

The Krugman piece goes downhill from there. He argues:

[T]he way Mr. Sanders is now campaigning raises serious character and values issues. It’s one thing for the Sanders campaign to point to Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street connections, which are real, although the question should be whether they have distorted her positions, a case the campaign has never even tried to make.

Seriously? It is up to Hillary Clinton to demonstrate that her Wall Street connections have not conflicted her abilities and judgments as president. Big donors always expect to have influence, whether they are giving to presidential or Congressional campaigns. There is no mystery about that.

Krugman ends his rant with an irresponsible suggestion that Bernie Sanders might “join the ‘Bernie or bust’ crowd, walking away and possibly helping put Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the White House.” What “Bernie or bust” crowd? This is a figment of Krugman’s imagination, and a petulant insult to Sanders and his supporters, and it seems to be a part of the campaign to “disqualify” Sanders and unify the party later: No one who wants economic improvement would ever vote for a Republican and for more trickle-down economic policy.

Hillary Clinton does understand that trickle-down doesn’t work, but she and her economic adviser need to know a lot more about the economics of inequality. Wealth is transferring to the top by the hundreds of billions each of dollars year, and well over $20 trillion has transferred to the top since 1980. This continuing inequality growth trend means that any benefit that might be achieved by raising the minimum wage will be swamped by the growth wealth and income losses from increased inequality.

I realize that this distributional perspective on economics is still relatively new, but Paul Krugman has had plenty of time to learn about the effects of inequality. When he was interviewed by the BBC three years ago, he refused to offer any explanation for his disagreement with Joseph Stiglitz on the issue. In my view, a true progressive would have shown more sympathy with the victims of inequality all along.

Attacking inequality is what the Sanders campaign is all about, and as I argued recently in a short letter to the editor of the Albany Times Union, (here) that should be the salient issue in this campaign. Hillary Clinton, should she win the nomination and go on to be President of the United States, will discover the truth about inequality economics soon enough, after a great deal more economic damage has been done. It is Paul Krugman, not Bernie Sanders, who is behaving irresponsibly.

JMH – 4/13/2016

 

 

 

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Phony Progressives? The Fraudulent Attack on the Sanders Economic Plan

In my last post I argued that Hillary Clinton, under the acknowledged influence of Paul Krugman, wrongly attacks the Sanders campaign on the ground that a hard line stand against inequality is bad “political strategy.” That’s Krugman the politician talking, and he’s serving up bad economics. Inequality is a fundamental and debilitating economic problem that must be addressed by reforming capitalism, not by gradually pursuing a political solution. I have been dismayed by Krugman’s seeming inability to understand even the simple, basic impacts of inequality growth.

Now I’m getting apoplectic: In Friday’s Op-ed (“Varieties of Voodoo,” New York Times, February 19, 2016, here), Krugman attacked the projections of the Sanders economic team, headed by Gerald Friedman, claiming they are making unrealistic projections of the income growth under the Sanders economic plan. Krugman implies that Sanders and Friedman are, somehow, lost in an “economic fantasy” comparable to the GOP’s trickle-down fantasy:

America’s two big political parties are very different from each other, and one difference involves the willingness to indulge economic fantasies.

Republicans routinely engage in deep voodoo, making outlandish claims about the positive effects of tax cuts for the rich. Democrats tend to be cautious and careful about promising too much. * * *

But is all that about to change?

On Wednesday four former Democratic chairmen and chairwomen of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers — three who served under Barack Obama, one who served under Bill Clinton — released a stinging open letter to Bernie Sanders and Gerald Friedman, a University of Massachusetts professor who has been a major source of the Sanders campaign’s numbers. The economists called out the campaign for citing “extreme claims” by Mr. Friedman that “exceed even the most grandiose predictions by Republicans” and could “undermine the credibility of the progressive economic agenda.”

The open letter (“An Open Letter from Past CEA Chairs to Senator Sanders and Professor Gerald Friedman,” February 17, 2016, signed by Alan Krueger, Austan Goolsbee, Christina Romer, and Laura D’Andrea Tyson, here),  did indeed contain a stinging rebuke of the Sanders campaign and Gerald Friedman:

We are former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors for President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. For many years, we have worked to make the Democratic Party the party of evidence-based economic policy. When Republicans have proposed large tax cuts for the wealthy and asserted that those tax cuts would pay for themselves, for example, we have shown that the economic facts do not support these fantastical claims. * * *

We are concerned to see the Sanders campaign citing extreme claims by Gerald Friedman about the effect of Senator Sanders’s economic plan – claims that cannot be supported by the economic evidence. Friedman asserts that your plan will have huge beneficial impacts on growth rates, income and employment that exceed even the most grandiose predictions by Republicans about the impact of their tax proposals. 

These four economists have literally taken Friedman and Sanders to the woodshed, and two days later Paul Krugman – Hillary Clinton’s adviser – made sure the whole world knew about it! I’m going to be adamant about this: This is a false, politically motivated attack, based on a superficial reading of Friedman‘s January 28 report (“What would Sanders do? Estimating the economic impact of Sanders programs,” here). The letter and Krugman’s immediate endorsement of it were serious lapses of political judgment, indiscretions that can only harm the progressive objectives Hillary Clinton insists she joins Bernie Sanders in pursuing. I see four major problems with this attack:

First, it is obviously politically motivated. A challenge in a primary campaign to the credibility of economic forecasts of a fellow progressive is bizarre, and especially one coming from Paul Krugman, who has publicly admitted that the economics profession’s “dirty secret” is its inability to forecast growth. Krugman’s longstanding conviction has been that inequality is just a “political” problem lacking economic consequences, and these four former CEA chairs appear to agree, for they launch a broadside attack on an obvious attempt to relieve those consequences. If they were really concerned about the impacts of inequality, one would think, all five of them would be more cautious in critiquing proposals to counter those effects.

Second, in this letter the former CEA chairs make no distinction between “grandiose predictions” of the trickle-down effects of income tax cuts on top incomes and predictions of income growth from increasing the taxes at the top. As all five of these economists must be aware, there is a huge difference between supply-side trickle-down fantasies and demand side stimulus proposals: It is one thing to make the trickle-down claim that tax cuts on top incomes will increase tax revenues (or even, incredibly, pay for themselves), and quite another to claim that tax increases on these same taxpayers will raise more revenues and stimulate the economy. The trickle-down claim is false, and the stimulus claim is true.

I am quite dismayed by the posturing of these five economists: My question for them is this: Where have you been? For several years Paul Ryan has been proposing massive tax cuts for the wealthy in proposals he calls “The Path to Prosperity.” None of them, so far as I know, publicly called him out for claiming, as he has, that these tax cuts will pay for themselves. Nor to my knowledge did they publically challenge the Heritage Foundation when, in 2002, it predicted that the Bush tax cuts would eliminate federal debt by 2010. Challenging that kind of absurdity is a no-brainer: Why haven’t they been actively calling them out the way they are now going after the Sanders campaign, on a completely different, non-controversial, and far less serious point?

Third, why strenuously attack any progressive proposal at this point on forecasting uncertainty grounds, given that the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have agreed on economic objectives?  So far as I know, none of these five economists have publically challenged CBO’s overly optimistic growth projections in recent years. CBO has declined to change its ten-year outlook even in the face of inequality-induced decline, and despite several recent quarters of zero or near-zero growth, and the Fed has been fitfully unable to raise interest rates. Lately, there has even been talk of negative interest rates.

The economic future as seen through the collective eyes of mainstream economists is so uncertain, in fact, that on the very day this blistering letter to Sanders and Friedman was published, it was reported that Fed Officials, for the first time in over a decade, refused to even issue an economic outlook statement after its most recent policy meeting:

Federal Reserve officials threw up their hands in January, deciding that they could not decide whether market turmoil would impede domestic economic growth.

The Fed in recent years has issued an assessment of its economic outlook after each meeting of its policy-making committee, but that assessment was missing from the statement after the most recent meeting in January. An official account, published on Wednesday after a standard three-week delay, makes clear that Fed officials simply did not know what to say.

 * * * It was the first time since March 2003 that the Fed declined to characterize the risks to its outlook, according to Michael Feroli, chief United States economist at JPMorgan Chase. (See “Fed Officials, at Meeting, Found Economic Outlook Cloudy,” by Binyamin Appelbaum, The New York Times, February 17, 2016, here).

Fourth, the high growth expectations these five economists find so offensive simply cannot be attributed to Sanders and Friedman. Although the letter gave no specifics, Krugman did: “Mr. Friedman outdoes the G.O.P. by claiming that the Sanders plan would produce 5.3 percent growth a year over the next decade.” Of course there is no way the economy can grow at 5.3 percent a year for ten years, with the population growing at less than one percent per year! Indeed, lately annual GDP has scarcely been growing at all.

Even a cursory examination of the Friedman summary reveals that the Sanders proposals are built on CBO’s nominal base case forecast for 2015-2025. The CBO projections are the source of any and all growth expectations over this period. The average annual growth rate of CBO’s base case projection for the ten year 2014-2024 period (“The 2015 Long-term Budget Outlook,” June 2015, p. 18) is 4.5%, not much below the 5.3% Sanders figure. I checked the claim about Friedman’s exaggeration of growth, and found that the 5.3% growth rate Krugman cites merely builds on the CBO baseline forecast, factoring in the changes from the proposed Sanders plan. (“What would Sanders do,” p. 10.)

It is not, as implied in the Krugman column, a claim that growth will be increased by 5.3%. Rather, it is the claim that, given the CBO baseline 4.5% growth projection, the Sanders proposal will stimulate growth an additional 0.8% to 5.3%. Thus, the “fantastical claims” and the offense to “evidence-based economic policy” cited by the former CEA chiefs must be credited to CBO, not to the Sanders campaign or the Gerald Friedman. I need to be clear about this: Sanders is claiming only that his proposals will increase growth by 0.8% above the CBO base case. CBO owns its base case.

Here is another question for these five incensed economists: Why, in these uncertain times, if you find the 5.3% ten-year projection you attribute to Friedman to be so offensive, have you been mute all this time about CBO’s 4.5% baseline forecast of annual growth through 2024 and 2025? Why did you wait so long to speak out, and then only to attack a fellow progressive economist whose objectives, presumably, you share?

To the extent these economists find the CBO baseline forecast overly optimistic, I agree with them: That has been my view for several years, and I have been disappointed with Krugman’s abject support of that forecast. There is nothing in this attack specifically critical of the Sanders stimulus analysis, however, and quite frankly the Sanders plan seems reasonable and modest, projecting “nearly $14.5 trillion in additional spending over 10 years,” producing “a significant stimulus to an economy that continues to underperform.” (p.9) Clearly, the plan intends to direct money deep into the economy where it is needed, with the expectation that median household income would increase by by 38% over ten years (p. 10). The report estimates that the revenue program by itself should be enough to fund the planned spending program, but adds that “the balance of revenue and spending programs will increase employment and revenue growth because the spending program has a larger fiscal multiplier than do progressive tax increases.” (p.8)  

This appears to be both reasonable and responsible: Although real GDP grew at an average annual rate of 2.93% in the 1980-2008 period (i.e., from the start of the Reagan Revolution to the Crash of 2008), Census Bureau data show that median real household income rose only 0.47% over that period. The bottom income brackets lost a lot of ground in those 28 years, and even more in the last decade. These five economists don’t seem to appreciate this real impact of inequality. The Sanders plan would reduce poverty, heat up the economy, beneficially take the pressure off of government welfare programs, and modestly stimulate economic growth. It’s a redistribution plan.

Keeping in mind that that these economists purport to be sympathetic with the progressive cause jointly shared by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it is breathtaking to see them attack the Sanders plan so ferociously less than three weeks after it was issued. Of course, the elephant in the room is “taxing the rich.” No doubt the very wealthy donors to Hillary Clinton’s super-PACs appreciate Krugman’s advice to just keep “fighting the good fight” without a big fuss over taxes. In today’s Op-ed (“Cranks on Top,” New York Times, February 22, 2016, here) Krugman contented himself with announcing that Hillary Clinton, “is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination,” and comparing how bad the tax policies of either Trump or Rubio would be for our economic future.

He’s right about GOP tax policies, of course, but along with Clinton’s wealthy supporters, he should ask himself where we would be four years from now if he was (gasp!) wrong about inequality and we had a major crash on her watch. How would he defend her against the GOP claim that she had mismanaged the economy? And how would her PAC donors feel about all the losses they had endured during her four years? 

I have long felt we need a woman in the Oval Office, and I can support Hillary Clinton, if she is able (like most women) to curb her more hawkish tendencies. But she has got to learn inequality economics, and I would not want to see Paul Krugman as Chief of her CEA. He simply does not understand the importance of progressive taxation, and his advice will destroy us nearly as quickly as would a Trump or Rubio presidency. What we need now is real, progressive change. It is Paul Krugman’s lame influence, not the Sanders campaign, that is “undermining the credibility of the American progressive agenda.” Whoever the Democratic Party runs for President, the Democratic National Convention should adopt the Sanders economic plan, or something like it, as a key component of the Democratic platform for the general election. 

JMH – 2/22/2016       

 

Posted in - FEATURED POSTS -, - MOST RECENT POSTS -, Economics, Politics, Uncategorized, Wealth and Income Inequality | Leave a comment

Establishment Economics: Learning from New Hampshire

Back in the Spring of 2012 I eagerly awaited the release of Paul Krugman’s latest book, “End This Depression NOW!” He was an avowed progressive, and as the New York Times economic columnist, he had the widest audience among current economists. Surely, I felt, he would alert the world to the dangers of growing income and wealth inequality. I was badly disappointed. Krugman glossed over the inequality issue, ignoring wealth transfers entirely, and characterized income inequality as a mere “political” problem. A few months later Joseph Stiglitz released his book “The Price of Inequality” and I felt encouraged. He understood that inequality creates instability and reduces growth. But why would two Nobel Prize winners disagree about fundamental macroeconomic principles? Later that year BBC interviewed both of these economists, and Krugman offered no explanation when asked directly why he disagreed with Stiglitz.

I have been following Krugman’s views very closely since then, and his strange, hybrid Keynesian worldview is very perplexing: He does reject the neoclassical, mainstream trickle-down idea that taxing the rich will harm economic growth, but he declines to accept the converse proposition that taxing the rich and wealth will facilitate growth. He seems to believe that taxation, or more specifically the progressiveness of taxation, is immaterial to growth. This is something he could not believe, however, if he compared the record of distribution and growth before the Reagan Revolution and after it.

Before 2012, I had already concluded that growing inequality is the cause of decline and depression, and that the excessive inequality growth since 1979 resulted from billionaires and multi-millionaires being allowed to make too much money (as a consequence of inadequate anti-trust and market regulation) and then to keep too much of their excessive gains (because of their huge income tax breaks). Their corporations paid progressively lower taxes, and the top income tax rate was reduced from 70% to 28% (now 35%), and the all-important capital gains tax was kept even lower.

As a consequence, not only did top incomes get way out of line with the median income, but inconceivable amounts of wealth transferred into the top 1%. A reasonable estimate of the increase in top 1% wealth since 1979 is $25 trillion, including amounts sequestered “offshore” to avoid U.S. tax liability. This is about $77,000 per capita for the entire U.S . population, which today totals about 323 million. The per capita gain for every man, woman and child in the top 1% by this estimate, is about $7,750,000. Meanwhile, that figure continues to grow each year, through continuous rent-taking and returns on existing wealth.

Much of that growth in top 1% wealth came from the national debt: The current total of $18 trillion is money the federal government borrowed to finance the tax reductions awarded to the top 1%. In effect, the United States has continuously mortgaged its future to create more wealth for the very rich, higher income inequality and slower growth! There is no sign that the plutocrats ever want to pay off the debt, so incredibly they are content to keep riding this gravy train until it derails.

The balance of the top 1% wealth increase was taken as economic rent (excess profit) from bottom 99%. That roughly $7 trillion amounts to about $21,900 for every man woman and child in the bottom 99%: The average family of five has lost about $110,000 of wealth over this period. Considering that most of the bottom 60% of the population has no net worth at all, to suggest that this is merely a political problem is beyond absurd.

Fast forward to the New Hampshire primaries in 2016, and the head-to-head debate on February 5 between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: Hillary Clinton argues that she has vast experience, and knows how to get things done. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, argues that we are up against the growing power of an insatiable oligarchy that must be expelled from power: Hence, he has called for a “political revolution.” In response, curiously, Clinton argues that Sanders would risk losing gains already made if he pushed too hard for reform. For instance, he would risk losing the health insurance gains from Obamacare. On that point, Sanders was very clear in the debate: There have been significant gains, he said, but he would strive, without sacrificing those gains, to do much better by expanding the reach of existing government programs.

Where did Hillary Clinton get the idea that the country needs to work for gradual change in this hostile, plutocratic environment? Clearly, it came from Paul Krugman, her apparent chief economic adviser: During the debate, she bragged that Krugman had “approved” her economic plan.

I had been hoping for these several years that Krugman would join Stiglitz to provide real leadership on economic growth and inequality, but Krugman has punted on both issues; and in a recent Op-ed, he has pretty much dashed my hopes in that regard. (“Plutocrats and Prejudice, The New York Times, January 29, 2016, here). After remarking that “the Republican primary fight has developed into a race to the bottom,” he offered this:

Like many people, I’ve described the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an argument between competing theories of change, which it is. But underlying that argument is a deeper dispute about what’s wrong with America, what brought us to the state we’re in.

To oversimplify a bit – but only, I think, a bit – the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or, more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, but it isn’t the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference – both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.

As you might guess, I’m on the many evils side of this debate.

This is a strange line of argument. Of course, as the debate made clear, Sanders is as passionate about “racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice,” as Clinton. Moreover, his economic position is not that “money is the root of all evil.” Rather, it is that inequality is extremely harmful and that those on the short end of the stick need a lot more money. The “ugliness we see all around us,” in Sanders’ view, is the proximate result of the taking of too much money from people who need it.

Admitting that “it’s going to be a hard slog at best,” he ends on this strangely equivocal note:

Is this an unacceptably downbeat vision? Not to my eyes. After all, one reason the right has gone so berserk is that the Obama years have in fact been marked by significant if incomplete progressive victories, on health policy, taxes, financial reform and the environment. And isn’t there something noble, even inspiring, about fighting the good fight, year after year, and gradually making things better?

Clearly, he has Hillary Clinton convinced to follow this “don’t-rock-the-boat” strategy. It is a position you would expect from someone who sees inequality as nothing but a political problem, and ignores the continuing concentration of wealth at the top. Things have been steadily worsening, and they are not going to get better on their own, or even with Hillary Clinton’s able intervention. There is no automatic return, even in the long run, to “full employment equilibrium.” The economy is either stable or it is unstable, and it has been unstable ever since the tax system became far too regressive.

Krugman focuses on the growing number of private sector jobs as a sign of economic improvement: More recently, he noted that “after President Obama won re-election, . . . the tax rates at the top went up substantially; since then we’ve gained eight million private sector jobs.” (The Time-Loop Party,” The New York Times, February 8, 2018). This is a useful political argument, but it is inaccurate economically:

(1) It is wrong to attribute the growth in jobs to the 35% top rate instituted by Obama. The 35% rate is well below the 70% top rate that prevented the growth of inequality up until the Reagan Revolution, and with growing inequality, growth is depressed;

(2) The official unemployment rate is misleading, because it does not account for people who have been out of work so long that they are no longer in the job market, nor does it account for the people working more than one job, and the declining wage level. The proper test is the rate of growth of incomes (GDP), which has been falling.

It is unclear why Krugman and Clinton are satisfied with the current top income tax rate. Because he has always rejected “trickle-down” ideology, Krugman probably would disagree with Josh Barro’s (“Bernie Sanders’ Tax Plan Would Test and Economic Hypothesis,” The New York Times, February 9, 2016, here) argument that, although Sanders is proposing to raise the top rate only to 45%, the increase (especially in combination with other taxes) would be so high as to “reach or even pass the point after which higher tax rates mean less revenue instead of more.” Studies (even those by Emmanuel Saez, cited by Barro) estimate that the optimal top income tax rate is actually over 80% and may as high as 90%. The ultimate disproof of Barro’s trickle-down theory, however, is that the top rate alone was 91%, then 70%, from 1945 to 1979, a period of relatively rapid growth of income and of middle class prosperity, and of declining income inequality.

Sanders’ margin of victory in New Hampshire, about 60% to 39%, even among voters that generally regard Hilary Clinton as more experienced, suggests that these voters soundly rejected the Clinton gradualism approach, which frankly reflects the harmful influence of neoclassicism on Paul Krugman. Robert Reich, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary (“Why We Must Try,” Robert Reich’s Blog, February 7, 2016, here), strongly renounced that approach:

Instead of “Yes we can,” many Democrats have adopted a new slogan this election year: “We shouldn’t even try.” * * * I understand their defeatism. After eight years of Republican intransigence and six years of congressional gridlock, many Democrats are desperate just to hold on to what we have.

I get it, but here’s the problem. There’s no way to reform the system without rocking the boat. There’s no way to get to where America should be without aiming high. * * * Wealth and income are more concentrated at the top than in over a century. And that wealth has translated into political power.

The result is an economy rigged in favor of those at the top – which further compounds wealth and power at the top, in a vicious cycle that will only get worse unless reversed.

The resounding response at the long rally following Bernie Sander’s victory showed me that voters are starting to catch on to the truth about economics, and are beginning to force a retreat from the profit-oriented neoclassicism of mainstream economics to the public-welfare oriented classical economics of Adam Smith and his successors. They know what is happening to them, and that the “ugliness we see all around us” is abnormal, and hurting them and our country beyond reason.

After the Primary, Reich wrote in his blog (“What New Hampshire Tells Us,” February 9, 2016):

You will hear pundits analyze the New Hampshire primaries and conclude that the political “extremes” are now gaining in American politics. * * * The “extremes” are not gaining ground. The anti-establishment ground forces of the American people are gaining.

For more than a century our thinking has been controlled by the pernicious dogma of “neoclassical” economics, and it has deeply poisoned our thinking. We can only hope that the voters in New Hampshire have sent a message to the economics establishment as well.

J.M.H. – 2/10/2016

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The (Future) State of the Union

Tonight (1/12/2016), Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address as President of the United States. It will go down as one of the great speeches in American history, I predict, because some years from now, when the truth about the current “state of the union” is better understood, it will become clear that Obama got it, and that he did the most any President could have done to successfully alert us all to the dangers we face. He was both prophet and cheerleader, cutting through the pettiness of current political discourse like butter and changing his focus — without directly saying so — to what we are going to have to do to survive.

It is well known that the Republicans in Congress have refused to cooperate with his administration ever since Obama was first elected. Mitch O’Connell’s Senate Republicans openly refused to cooperate and work with him on budget and economic issues. Even his appointments have been routinely blocked. At this point, there was no need for Obama to attack: He briefly reviewed his successes, pointing to the high level of private sector job creation and reduced unemployment during his presidency, wryly noting that there would not be a meeting of the minds on health care “any time soon.” He then quickly changed his focus to the future, beyond his presidency and even beyond the next presidency. His speech — as he affirmed explicitly about half way through — was mainly directed at the American people. Here are the major points that are still resonating with me a few hours later:

  1. The American people are losing faith in the political system, and becoming apathetic believing that there is nothing they can do because they are up against immense wealth, and the system is rigged. On this point, Obama said pointedly, we must keep working for change, or we will not have the future we want and need;
  2. For a strong democracy, we must all work together and try to settle our differences. He called for an end to prejudices and reactionary fears, and a re-dedication to constructive problem solving;
  3. He called for an end to denial, pointing out that when Sputnik was launched, inaugurating the space competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, we did not pretend that Sputnik did not exist — we went to work and less than two decades later we had successfully landed astronauts on the moon;
  4. He sketched out a calmer, more constructive approach to international affairs. We are the strongest country in the world, he emphasized, and what people look to us for is leadership. Our great force must be used wisely. He specifically condemned invasions, singling out the Vietnam and Iraq wars for particular condemnation;
  5. He said we have a strong, inventive, and creative economy, and twice emphasized that anyone who says we are in economic decline is not telling the truth;
  6. He emphasized the inequality problem, however, several times. These were mostly fleeting references to the inequality, such as the comment that it is not the average worker that avoids taxation by putting money in offshore accounts;
  7. Although the economy is growing, he emphasized the huge decline in the ability of Americans to afford a college education;
  8. He said we need to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, not weaken them;
  9. Emphasizing the decline of the middle class, he spoke of the need to promote small business;
  10. He spoke forcefully about the importance of combating climate change, but arguing that even if the problem was less severe, American businesses can only gain in the development of alternative energy sources;
  11. In response to the intense progressive opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he argued that it would put America in a better position to influence growth and development around the world.

This was nothing short of a progressive manifesto, though mostly by implication. Bernie Sanders was interviewed on MSNBC shortly afterwards, and he discounted the idea that Obama was trying to influence the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. But he noted the similarity between Obama’s agenda and his platform. Asked about his assessment of his chances for victory in Iowa and Wisconsin primaries, he expressed optimism.

Here’s the thing: Everyone knows, by now, the rapid growth in Bernie’s popularity among democratic voters, everywhere he goes around the country, and it is becoming clear that people are rallying around his core message that almost all wealth and income growth are concentrating in the top 1%. People understand there is something wrong when this continues to happen, year after year. And those of us who have been around for decades realize just how much the economy has changed.

This is not rocket science, and Obama surely knows it. When people lose their savings, their jobs, and their homes with incredible swiftness, as they did after the Crash of 2008, something is simply wrong. The really remarkable thing about the State of the Union Address, this time, was that the President did not have to assert these matters as if they were debatable questions of fact. This time, it was common knowledge, and the question was whether the American people would take notice and fight back. “I can’t do this by myself,” he said. “No president” can do this alone. We need a functional democracy. This was a call to arms, and a confident one.

Before the speech, the conversation on MSNBC centered around GOP political strategist Steve Schmidt’s argument that Obama would have to deliver an ultimatum to Iran to release the imprisoned U.S. sailors or he would lack credibility as a strong, determined leader. Obama did address the credibility about his determination to deal with terrorism in the speech: “Just ask bin Laden” he suggested. He argued that terror groups are a threat to populations, but not to our existence, and should be dealt with accordingly, and he took pains to distinguish the threats posed by ISIS and Al Qaeda from threats posed by nation states.

After the speech, Schmidt found himself attacking the rest of the panel, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, etc., for blaming Republicans for the failure of Washington to get things done. He was backed into a corner, at that point, forced to ignore the fact that the Republican constituency (and much of the Democratic constituency as well) consists of wealthy donors. Obama knows this, of course, but his tactic was to empathize with all of Congress for the growing need to raise more and more money just to stay in office. It appears the President covered all the bases, in a speech he has been preparing since November.

Once again, I was inspired again by Obama’s obvious sincerity. He remarked that democracy must be based on trust, and I do trust him. (No one could have faked that effort and pulled it off!) He’s been misled on a few issues, in my opinion, like the impact of the TPP (and his stridency in foreign affairs tends to undercut his arguments supporting internatinal c0operation and good will), but he’s no hypocrite. And how, exactly, was he supposed to play the hand he was dealt? He seems clear that sincerely wants a better world.

My overall sense is that the prospects for America’s economic future and democracy reflect the failure of unfettered capitalism. Corporations now have too much power, and they set up domestic and international trade and banking to benefit the bottom line. They’ve gone way too far, and will not be easy to stop. “It’s hard,” Obama wistfully remarked. 

Bernie Sanders is right that income and wealth are the key issues we need to address. I am heartened by the fact that so many concerned potential voters are rallying to him at this crucial hour in our history. However, what most people don’t realize, quite yet, is just how serious the threat inequality poses of another major depression.  Obama is technically correct — and in the context of this speech he needed to say it — that our economy is not in decline. However, we are learning in the last two years that aggregate income growth has slowed to a near standstill, gradually, even before the Crash, while corporate profits have continued to soar. And it is becoming better known, thanks to the efforts of Bernie Sanders, that more than 80% of the lowest real incomes have actually declined since 1980. We have two economies, one for the rich and one for everyone else. Many analysts are predicting another stock market crash in the next few years.

So, yes, the situation is serious. It’s not about Democrats vs. Republicans. Its still about labor vs. capital, a class warfare that has been obscured by mainstream economics for over a century. The economic/political power of plutocracy and the public psychology behind it have been building for far too long. People now opine that our number one issue is climate change. That’s huge, but what chance is there to address that problem aboard a runaway train that’s headed for another crash? 

What are our chances? If we don’t make it, we’ll have only our own collective apathy to blame. And it will not be for want of a stronger appeal from our outgoing President, Barack Obama.

JMH — 1/12/2016 (ed. 1/13)

 

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Economics and Ecology: The Handwriting on the Wall

Now and then a day comes along when several news stories combine to reveal a clear picture of the human condition, and of America’s future, and for me today (December 2, 2015) is a prime example of such a day:

1. An article by Ravi Somaiya in the business section of the New York Times (Columbia Disputes Exxon Mobil on Climate Risk Articles) reports on the continued wrangling between Mobil/Exxon and Columbia on the issue of whether Mobil/Exxon has presented incorrect propaganda and improper influence in its opposition to the scientific evidence that man-made global warming is a reality.

The unprecedented recent protests around the world (‘No Planet B,’ marchers worldwide tell leaders before U.N. climate summit), and the government response in the Paris negotiations, reminds us that the “denial” card is just about played out, even as these controversies continue to roil. The reactions of Big Oil companies to the findings of climate science over the last few years, however, have made it clear just how myopic the profit motive can be. Even as the evidence mounts, some capitalists would “rather fight than switch,” and would fight to the death (of the economy, and even human civilization and the planet) in kamikaze style just to ensure near term profits. Have Mobil/Exxon and the other big oil and gas companies yet decided to wind down the mining of carbon fuels and get into other lines of production, even as alternative energy sources are becoming increasingly cost-effective? Their plans for fracking and arctic drilling suggest otherwise. I’m still looking for significant evidence of change.         

2. Coral Davenport’s front-page article in the New York Times (The Marshal Islands are disappearing) got me thinking again about the relationships between economics and ecology. The Marshall Islands are gradually slipping into the ocean as sea levels rise, wreaking havoc for residents:

Most of the 1,000 or so Marshall Islands, spread out over 29 narrow coral atolls in the South Pacific, are less than six feet above sea level — and few are more than a mile wide. For the Marshallese, the destructive power of the rising seas is already an inescapable part of daily life. Changing global trade winds have raised sea levels in the South Pacific about a foot over the past 30 years, faster than elsewhere.

This is not a new story, and alarming reports made the news in 2013. Today, however, as the relatively poor residents continue to ineffectually protect their homes from the rising sea, Tony A. deBrum, the Marshall Island’s foreign minister, is trying to influence the terms of the United Nations climate change accord now being negotiated in Paris. His focus is “Squarely on the West’s wallets,” Coral reports,  “recouping ‘loss and damage,’ in negotiators’ parlance, for the destruction wrought by the rich nations’ industrial might on the global environment.” A great many low-lying lands around the world, such as Bengladesh, are no doubt looking for similar compensation from the world’s large industrial nations:

But the Marshall Islands holds an important card: Under a 1986 compact, the roughly 70,000 residents of the Marshalls, because of their long military ties to Washington, are free to emigrate to the United States, a pass that will become more enticing as the water rises on the islands’ shores.

So the United States will face added costs, in addition to all the costs of reducing carbon emissions and handling our own retreating shorelines: We may have to assist other countries that are in the same boat, and we will likely face additional and costly immigration problems.

3. In the current political atmosphere of the United States, these burden will be pushed, as much as possible, on the vanishing middle class. There is no sign, as yet, that the public will demand higher taxation of corporations and top incomes with the vigor it has shown in the United States and elsewhere in climate change protests. There are signs in today’s news stories of the effects of raging income and wealth inequality growth in the United States:

a. Today I found a report published December 1 by the Institute for Policy Studies on the growing concentration of wealth: (Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us). This, too, is not a brand new revelation — wealth has been rapidly concentrating since the beginning of the Reagan revolution in 1980, and Bernie Sanders has been making wealth inequality a major component of his presidential campaign. But it’s getting even more pronounced. Here is the IPS statement of some its major findings:

  • America’s 20 wealthiest people — a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet –­ now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.
  • The Forbes 400 now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African-American population ­– plus more than a third of the Latino population ­– combined.
  • With a combined worth of $2.34 trillion, the Forbes 400 own more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the country combined, a staggering 194 million people.
  • The median American family has a net worth of $81,000. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American families. That’s as many households in the United States that own cats.

The astounding per capita wealth gap between the top 20 and the bottom half of U.S. households keeps growing, and it has reached a ratio of more than 3 million-to-one.

b. This is way too much money at the top, and collecting there, it has slowed our economy and its growth rate substantially, while want and deprivation increase at the bottom of the income ladder. We have seen hundreds of billions of this excess wealth “invested” in fine art, as record prices are obtained at auction even for some obscure paintings, prints and sculptures. Even with that, it was somewhat surprising to see in this morning’s news an article, by Vindu Goel and Nick Wingfield, reporting that Facebook’s CEO, the youthful Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife have decided to donate most of their wealth to charity (Mark Zuckerberg Vows to Donate 99% of His Facebook Shares for Charity):

The pledge was made in an open letter to their newborn daughter, Max, who was born about a week ago. Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, said they were forming a new organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to manage the money, through an unusual limited liability corporate structure. “Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities,” they wrote.

The handwriting is on the wall: The ultra-rich have far more money than they know what to do with, and the more philanthropic among them are beginning to realize they came by it far too easily and owe a huge debt to society. This is but a modest philanthropic gesture, however, in the context of the entire Forbes 400 wealth. The Waltons and the Kochs, meanwhile, continue their brands of predatory capitalism, with the opposite effect.   

c. Another article in today’s New York Times by Jackie Calmes (Broad Effort Aims to Expand Financial Services to Low-Income Consumers) announced that the Obama administration, “teaming with private partners including the Gates Foundation and JPMorgan Chase, announced initiatives on Tuesday to expand banking services to millions of Americans and others worldwide who lack essentials like checking or savings accounts and access to credit.”

“More than two billion people around the world rely solely on cash transactions, and basic financial services are out of reach for one in four individuals on earth,” the Treasury Secretary, Jacob J. Lew, said at a two-day financial inclusion forum of government, financial industry, academic and nonprofit leaders at the Treasury Department.

“Even in the United States, with greater access to conventional financial services, one in five households continues to use alternatives like check cashers or auto title loans,” Mr. Lew added, and millions do not have enough financial history — despite years of paying rent and bills — to have the credit score needed for access to loans. 

This may sound like a good idea, but it’s actually a step in the wrong direction. It is at bottom a banking initiative, and it will only lead to more inequality. What the world definitely does not need now is more debt. The Crash of 2008 was the result of excessive, subprime mortgage debt, and growing subprime auto debt and student loan bubbles are also beginning to threaten the integrity of the U.S. economy. What is needed by most of the people in the world, and certainly in the United States, is more jobs and income not more credit. The current situation is a classic “Catch 22” and the only way out is to raise taxes on top incomes and corporations.

d. Also in my e-mail today was Harry Dent’s recent publication, sent free to his mailing list on request (How to Survive and Thrive During the Great Gold Bust Ahead). Dent has been predicting another stock market crash, like the one on 2008, and not without reason.  In this article, he warns against buying gold. But there is much sense in his underlying analysis of America’s debt problem:

[B]elieve me I take no pleasure in issuing warnings like this one. It’s no fun standing up and screaming into the stampede that everyone’s going the wrong way. For one, my warnings fall mostly on deaf ears. For example, I called the height of the U.S. real estate bubble peak in late 2005. Those who heard called me every bad name under the sun. As for most others, they just tuned me out. Only the few who had been following my research were able to sidestep the catastrophe.

And my research is telling me that today we’re headed for the largest debt and asset bubble burst in our history. Worse than the Tulip Bubble in the 1630s. Worse than the Great Depression. Worse than anything you’ve seen in your lifetime.

That’s because this bubble is being pumped up by our own government. The bubble tried to burst naturally in 2008, but Hank Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury at the time, begged Congress to step in and stop it from happening. And they did.

Wall Street was bailed out to the tune of almost a trillion dollars with money we didn’t have, but instead we borrowed or printed. Since then the government has printed $4 trillion to keep the banks and financial institutions from collapsing like they did in the 1930s.

Other countries are also printing money like it’s crack cocaine. This has led to the biggest global debt and financial asset bubble in modern history.

I think Dent is right about this highly over-leveraged economy. The following graph he presented of total U.S. debt as a percentage of GDP from 1870 to 2015 caught my attention:

This is a remarkable graph, showing both public debt and private debt (U.S. debt alone is around 100% of GDP). To me, the most noteworthy thing abut the period from 1930 to the present is the huge decline in debt up to the relatively stable period in the 1950s through the 1970s, followed by the steep increase after 1980. Because it follows the trend in top 1% income concentration, this reflects income inequality, and the basic features of the trend are fairly apparent: Private debt has increased during the “Reagan revolution” because, outside of the top 1%, people have had to borrow more money for the basic essentials of American life (including housing, automobiles, and education).

Because of the similarity of the broad parameters of debt and inequality, it is plain that the reduction of the increasing regressivity of taxation that came with the Reagan revolution had much to do with the steepness of these trends: As the tax burden shifted away from the top income earners onto those with lower incomes, the opportunity for lenders to make even more money through credit transactions rapidly increased. More than ever before, the incomes of everyone who must borrow money are eaten up by the burdens of taxation and debt service.

4. Into this overall picture of growing inequality and decline, with the looming threat of deep depression (note there is a decline in total debt since 2008, which parallels the decline in top income) we now must concern ourselves with paying for a huge chunk of the additional extreme costs of saving the planet from ecological collapse, and the likely need to provide financial assistance to the poorer countries in their efforts to combat the effects of global warming This will likely require a high degree of international cooperation, unlike what we are used to in recent years. But there is one more big issue that one of my favorite New York Times reporters, Eduardo Porter, wrote about in this morning’s offering (Imagining a World Without Growth). In the print version, the title was “No growth, no world? Think about it.” Porter raised the question, quite simply, whether the world order could survive without growing:

It’s hard to imagine now, but humanity made do with little or no economic growth for thousands of years. In Byzantium and Egypt, income per capita at the end of the first millennium was lower than at the dawn of the Christian Era. Much of Europe experienced no growth at all in the 500 years that preceded the Industrial Revolution. In India, real incomes per person shrank continuously from the early 17th through the late 19th century.

As world leaders gather in Paris to hash out an agreement to hold down and ultimately stop the emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases that threaten to make Earth increasingly inhospitable for humanity, there is a question that is unlikely to be openly discussed at the two-week conclave convened by the United Nations. But it is nonetheless hanging in the air: Could civilization, as we know it, survive such an experience again? The answer, simply, is no. 

Economic growth took off consistently around the world only some 200 years ago. Two things powered it: innovation and lots and lots of carbon-based energy, most of it derived from fossil fuels like coal and petroleum. Staring at climactic upheaval approaching down the decades, environmental advocates, scientists and even some political leaders have put the proposal on the table: World consumption must stop growing.

Mainstream economics has been based all along on a presumption  of continuous unlimited growth; at least, the only constraint in neoclassical theory on growth is demographic. Porter has tapped into the ultimate question: In a world of limited (and in some cases rapidly dwindling) resources could human population and civilization continue to expand at anything like the rates of the last two centuries? Porter writes:

The Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich has been arguing for decades that we must slow both population and consumption growth. When I talked to him on the phone a few months ago, he quoted the economist Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

I have seen estimates that total human population is stabilizing and will stop growing sometime this century. Porter investigates whether any more human population growth at all is consistent with saving the planet’s environment:

The proposal that growth must stop appears frequently along the leftward edge of the environmental movement, in publications like Dissent and the writing of the environmental advocate Bill McKibben. It also shows up in academic literature. For instance, Peter Victor of York University in Canada published a study titled “Growth, degrowth and climate change: A scenario analysis,” in which he compared Canadian carbon emissions under three economic paths to the year 2035.

Limiting growth to zero, he found, had a modest impact on carbon spewed into the air. Only the “de-growth” situation — in which Canadians’ income per person shrank to its level in 1976 and the average working hours of employed Canadians declined by 75 percent — managed to slash emissions in a big way.

And it is creeping into international diplomacy, showing up forcefully in India’s demand for “carbon space” from the rich world, which at its logical limit would demand that advanced nations deliver negative emissions — suck more carbon out of the atmosphere than they put in — so the world’s poor countries could burn their way to development as the rich countries have done for the last two centuries.

Yes, there was plenty of food for thought in today’s news. Reduced growth is going to be needed, but reduced growth is being destructively imposed on us by inequality, without constructive planning (especially by Big Oil) for a sustainable future. I continue to have this gut feeling that if there is going to be any chance for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live reasonably safe and happy lives beyond the middle of this century, there are going to have to be some major changes in how we think about ourselves and our communities. We need more cooperation and less confrontation. We need to change our perceptions of what a “good life” means on this planet. As demonstrators so aptly put it on their signs, “There is no planet B.”

We certainly need a social agenda for economic activity that does not make profiting from our transactions with one another the ultimate objective. I wonder: Is that what Mark Zuckerberg and his wife are trying to tell us? 

JMH – 12/2/2015

Postscript (added 12/3/2015): Here’s a link to the open letter Zuckerberg and Chan wrote to their newborn daughter (A letter to our daughter). This is the lead idea from their summation:

Our hopes for your generation focus on two ideas: advancing human potential and promoting equality.

Of course, they mean equality of opportunity: Once everyone understands how much economic inequality has harmed most people’s opportunities, and everyone’s future, I expect many others to rally behind Zuckerberg and Chan.

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The Dangerous Delusions of Mainstream Capitalism

The economics profession is in a state of confusion unparalleled in the history of the social sciences.  The devastating stock market crash in 2008 had not been anticipated. In its aftermath, The Economist  [1] opined: 

[T]there is a clear case for reinvention, especially in macroeconomics. Just as the Depression spawned Keynesianism, and the 1970s stagflation fueled a backlash, creative destruction is already under way. * * * Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel prize in economics in 2008, [has recently] argued that much of the past 30 years of macroeconomics was “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst.” Barry Eichengreen, a prominent American economic historian, says the crisis has “cast into doubt much of what we thought we knew about economics.”

Recently, The Economist [2] underscored the field’s lack of progress over the last eight years:

Almost eight years have elapsed since the financial crisis took hold in August 2007 and still the same issues are being fought over. Who should suffer the most pain – creditors or debtors? Is the best way to achieve growth short-term fiscal stimulus or long-term structural reform? And, in Europe in particular, how does one reconcile democracy with international obligations?

Debt is a claim on future wealth: lenders expect to be paid back. The stock of debt accordingly tends to expand at moments of economic optimism. Borrowers hope that their incomes are set to rise, or that the assets they are buying with borrowed money will increase in price; lenders share that enthusiasm.

But if wealth does not rise sufficiently to justify the optimism, lenders will be disappointed. Debtors will default. This causes creditors to cut back on further lending, creating a liquidity problem even for solvent borrowers. Governments then step in, as they did in 2008 and 2009.

The best way of coping with too much debt is to spur growth. But developed countries, even America, have struggled to reproduce their pre-crisis growth rates. So the choice has come down to three options: inflate, default or stagnate.

The issue was, and remains, growth. How is it caused and controlled? Those questions cannot be answered by mainstream supply-side economics. The failure to understand growth, frankly admitted by some leading mainstream economists (including notably Paul Krugman and John Bates Clark Prize winner Raj Chetty) is, as Krugman once put it, the economics profession’s “dirty little secret.”  The lack of understanding is palpable: The Economist’s short list of options is incomplete: A fourth option — indeed the only remaining option — is to “equilibrate,” i.e., reduce the inequality of wealth and incomes. This argument, as yet, has occurred to very few professional economists, and it gets no attention at all in mainstream economic reports and debates .

Why the theoretical disarray? The “science” of economics made an abrupt about-face in the late 19th Century, when it  began to concentrate on the development of a new ideology. The new movement was called “neoclassical economics” and the movement has taken over mainstream economics in America and the world since the late 1950s. The excellent explanation of this phenomenon advanced by the prominent Georgist economist Mason Gaffney [3] begins with this:  

Neoclassical economics is the idiom of most economic discourse today. It is the paradigm that bends the twigs of young minds. Then it confines the florescence of older ones, like chicken-wire shaping a topiary. It took form about a hundred years ago, when Henry George and his reform proposals were a clear and present political danger and challenge to the landed and intellectual establishments of the world. Few people realize to what a degree the founders of Neoclassical economics changed the discipline for the express purpose of deflecting George, discomfiting his followers, and frustrating future students seeking to follow his arguments. The stratagem was semantic: to destroy the very words in which he expressed himself. Simon Patten expounded it succinctly. “Nothing pleases a … single taxer better than … to use the well-known economic theories … [therefore] economic doctrine must be recast” (Patten 1908; Collier, 1979).

George believed economists were recasting the discipline to refute him. He states so, in his last book, The Science of Political Economy. George’s self-importance was immodest, it is true. * * * George’s view may even strike some as paranoid. That was this writer’s first impression, many years ago. I have changed my view, however, after learning more about the period, the literature, and later events.

When I began my in-depth study of “The Economics of Inequality” a few years ago, I started with the work of John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist who endeavored during the 1930s to explain recessions and depressions —  i.e., constraints on growth. I soon discovered from reviewing his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money that he, too, was critical of the neoclassical school, though that was a title not as yet given to it, and his General Theory was designed to refute its basic tenets. His primary target was the ideology of Alfred Marshall, a late 19th Century British economist. As Gaffney noted:

Major texts by Marshall, Seligman, and Richard T. Ely, written in the 1890s, went through many re-printings each over a period of 40 years with few if any changes. Not until 1936 was there another major “revolution.”  

That, of course was the “Keynesian revolution.” As Gaffney observes, there was an intense interest among American neoclassicists in discrediting Henry George, for he had identified the concentration of income and wealth as the source of inequality in his famous book Progress and Poverty (1878). Modern neoclassicism has also targeted the work of Keynes and Karl Marx; but Keynes had not dealt directly with inequality, and Marx was easier to discredit because of his association with communism.

Keynes is remembered mainly for his advice on how government could stimulate flagging economies: (1) monetary policy, to encourage borrowing with low interest rates, and (2) fiscal policy, government borrowing (deficit spending) to stimulate flagging economies with increased spending. The meat and potatoes of his General Theory has been all but forgotten: He established that growth depends on demand, not the mere availability of supply, and when aggregate demand is weakened, an economy declines. In today’s parlance, the capitalists are not the job creators: they react to the expectation of future profits, and that expectation lies behind investment decisions. It was the dynamic culmination of “classical” economics which, from Adam Smith on down, had been concerned with optimizing social welfare, and Keynes saw that goal as being fulfilled when an economy is at full employment. And Keynes presumed that progressive taxation would be employed to control the distribution of income and wealth. 

This all made good sense, but “neoclassical” economics had a different agenda. It was built upon “micro-economic” ideas designed to maximize individual success, and profits. Starting with Marshall’s fantasy about automatic growth and adjustment to full-employment equilibrium, neoclassicism went much further: The aggregation of individual actions designed to optimize personal success, said Paul Samuelson, optimizes society’s welfare as well. An entire system of ideology, starting from the allegation that “the invisible hand of Adam Smith” ensures perfect efficiency and resource allocation and running through Arthur Okun’s alleged trade-off between efficiency and equality, was created and proselytized. When I checked, the only support Okun cited for his argument was — the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith! Of course, Smith never meant the expression to be interpreted that way, and the term “neoclassical” is a misnomer: Classical and neoclassical economic ideas are opposed in both intent and result.  

Abandoning the demand-side paradigm made it impossible for mainstream economics to understand growth. The missing piece, which Keynes was on the verge of merging into his dynamic demand-side economics, was the distribution of income and wealth. Karl Marx and Henry George had been correct that the accumulation of wealth and concentration of income creates inequality and decline, though they both lacked a dynamic model to explain exactly how. Regardless, mainstream economics had buried their ideas so deeply in neoclassical ideology that when the current U.S. inequality cycle began in the 1980s with the Reagan revolution, no one had any suspicion that the growing income and wealth inequality had any macroeconomic significance at all!

in 2014 and 2015, the economics profession is beginning, like a fairy-tale princess, to awaken to the truth. And the truth is harsh. [4] The concentration of income and wealth at the top — a gradual process — automatically reduces economic growth; and it is caused by the lack of a sufficiently progressive system of taxation.

Everyone conveniently forgot about one piece of axiomatically correct theory that emerged from the late 19th Century — Irving Fischer’s “Quantity Theory of Money” (QTM): The problem supply-side theory keeps running into is that in a depressed economy, when growth is being continuously reduced, the money needed even to regain previously expected levels of effective demand is simply not in circulation. The QTM recognizes that income is a product of the money supply times the velocity of money, over a given time period (typically we think of GDP, or income in one year). When most of all new income growth is going high within the top 1% (even the top 0.1%) The velocity of money necessarily slows.

This is irrefutable. All of Milton Friedman’s theorizing about the causes of and remedies for the Great Depression were erroneous, because he presumed a constant velocity of money. That was a huge error, and it provided all the necessary support for the very wrong supply-side ideas that now control public policy — the austerity doctrine, and the trickle-down myth.

This brings us back to the recent musings of the Economist. Try rereading the latest piece on “The Debt Trap” with this distributional perspective in mind: Yes, there is a debt trap. Money, by the way, is debt in a modern economy. It is created and destroyed by the banking system when it makes loans and writes them off. When the amount of outstanding debt gets too large, bubbles form and, as happened in the Crash of 2008, they burst. Upon a crash, the artificially inflated value of assets collapses back down to a closer reflection of their real, tangible value. 

More debt bubbles are inflating as we speak. This is happening in the United States, with a gradually accruing and increasingly devastating level of damage, mainly because of the perpetuation of tax reductions granted on top incomes over the years, and also because of a lack of progressiveness elsewhere in the taxation system (sales and use taxes, property taxes, etc.)

Now the U.S. is threatened with a serious federal budget crisis which, as I have discussed in earlier posts, is not recognized for what it is by the Congressional Budget Office, which is still subject to wrongful neoclassical idealism. But CBO can certainly do arithmetic, and it expects interest on publicly held federal debt to rise exponentially and astronomically. CBO projects that within the next six years it will overcome the entire national defense budget.

The Economist reminds us that “debt is a claim on future wealth: lenders expect to be paid back.” But lenders to our federal government do not expect to be paid back. Ever. Even CBO is constrained to point out that, in these circumstances, this pace of debt growth is not “sustainable.” 

American capitalism is far more unstable, in our current environment and under current institutional circumstances, than almost anyone imagined possible. That is because for forty years the United States has pursued an idiotic fiscal policy. I keep asking: How much time do we have left?                   

JMH — 10/8/2015  

________

[1] “What went wrong with economics,” The Economist, July 16, 2009 (here).

[2] “The Debt Trap,” The Economists, July 11, 2015, p. 64. Buttonwood (here).

[3] Mason Gaffney, The Corruption of Economics, “Introduction: The Power of Neo-classical Economics,” 1976 (here).

[4] J. Michael Harrison, “The Economics of Inequality,” The Torch Magazine, (here).

 

 

 

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The Trickle-Down Nightmare

In my retirement, I have devoted myself to the investigation of income and wealth inequality, and in the process acquired a distributional perspective on how modern market economies actually work. When I began this project, I soon realized that it would involve tracing through the history of “political economy” the emergence of some very harmful, and very wrong, ideas. Consistently nurtured over more than 150 years of modern “neoclassical” economics, these are ideas that have come to control the perspectives and thinking of most economists, and of politicians and the mainstream media.

It seems not only surprising, but also quite remarkable, that bad ideas — that is, ideas that do not stand up under scientific scrutiny — have consistently favored the interests of wealth and power. For this reason, perhaps, it seems less surprising that these bad ideas now dominate economic theory and doctrines: Sadly, mainstream economics has become less a social “science” and more an elitist discipline dedicated, in effect, to the cultivation of inequality and the preservation of the interests of wealth.

Yes, there are pockets of “heterodox” dissent, but you have to dig to find them. Happily, the voices of dissent are growing louder as conditions worsen, but throughout history societies have reacted too late, and suffered enormous damage, and then had to learn hard-won lessons all over again, as ably recounted by Thom Hartman in his latest book, The Crash of 2016.

It has not always been that way. A period of significant objective scientific inquiry in economics got underway with Adam Smith, who published Wealth of Nations in 1776, and his immediate successors T. R. Malthus and David Ricardo. This period of “Classical Economics” continued on into the mid-19th Century through the work of the German Karl Marx, the British philosopher/economist John Stuart Mill, and the American Henry George, but began a rapid decline with the emergence of neoclassicism in the last decades of 1800s. 

Unlike classical economics, which was concerned with the overall welfare of society, neoclassicism promoted private gain. It made gigantic and often creative leaps to assume away unpleasant and morally troublesome aspects of reality, chief among them the fact that one party could gain wealth only at the expense of others. Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890) made explicit one of the biggest neoclassical leaps of faith ever, namely, the idea that an economy can somehow always recover from the consequences of the accumulation of concentrated wealth. Forty-five years later, in what would be the last gasp of rational classicism, John Maynard Keynes took on Marshall and the neoclassicists, exposing the weaknesses in their thinking in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936). 

The last word of that title is revealing: Keynes’s target was neoclassical supply-side idealism, and modern neoclassicism has continued to ignore the role of the money supply in providing effective demand, and the constraint the finite money supply imposes on growth and recovery. Keynes emphasized the “principle of effective demand,” which essentially means that there must be a sufficient supply of money distributed throughout society to provide for the growth of demand, income and investment. An important ingredient missing from Keynes’s analysis was the Quantity Theory of Money (QTM), a theory developed by the American economist Irving Fisher and a few others in the late 1890s that expresses a mathematical truism: The amount of an economy’s annual income (GDP) is determined by the average size of the money supply and the average velocity of its circulation. The supply and velocity of money are the ultimate constraints on effective demand.

Intent on denying Marx’s prediction that inequality gradually grows over time in capitalist economies, neoclassical economics has consistently cultivated the “trickle-down” fantasy that wealth and income could be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few with no adverse consequences for the less wealthy. To prop up this trickle-down fantasy, neoclassicists like Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman marginalized the Keynesian emphasis on the sufficiency of “effective demand.” Today, Keynesian “demand-side” theory has been almost entirely discarded in favor of the “supply-side” approach Keynesian macroeconomics repudiated. Likewise, the QTM has been overlooked: Growing income concentration at the top reduces the amount of spending and demand below top incomes (which Keynesian theory requires for economic recovery) and that represents a decline in the velocity of money. That stagnation and recovery fundamentally depend on the velocity of money was completely overlooked by mainstream economics after Milton Friedman presumed a constant velocity of money in his famous theory of the Great Depression.

Trickle-down and the QTM

It is fairly easy to explain why the perpetuation of the trickle-down myth requires overlooking the realities imposed by the QTM: The trickle-down argument requires that when the wealthiest get richer there is enough stimulation and growth so that the entire economy will do better as well: The losers, as always, are those who are not trying hard enough to succeed. The QTM, however, demolishes that fantasy, for it establishes that when the wealthiest get richer, everyone else is worse off.

The entire issue of growth and prosperity is intimately linked to the distribution of wealth and income, as I have emphasized over the past several years. Mainstream economics has steadfastly refused to admit that inequality growth has any macroeconomic implications at all. That denial has become impossible to maintain: The many trillions of dollars of net worth that has accumulated within the top 1% since 1979 was overlooked for decades, and is only now being discovered. But with the acceleration of inequality growth since the Crash of 2008, the reality of wealth concentration has become difficult to overlook. For example, Paul Buchheit reported in Nation of Change on November 14, 2014 (here), that “American wealth has been sucked away from the middle to a greater extent than in any major country except Russia.” Moreover:

A revealing study from the Russell Sage Foundation found that: — Median wealth has dropped, stunningly, by 43 percent since 2007 — Only the richest 10% of the country gained wealth since 2003.

Ignoring these facts is to ignore QTM: It is not just a “theory,” it is a mathematical certainty. Even more stunning is the high concentration of income redistribution, which economist Emmanuel Saez has reported is consistently moving higher and higher within the top 1%, and is locating somewhere near or within the top 0.1%.   

This leads to enormous levels of confusion and misinformation. An excellent example can be found in the recent New York Times article “As Economies Gasp Globally, U.S. Growth Quickens” by Nelson D. Schwartz, dated August 28, 2015 (here). This was a tremendously optimistic report:

The latest evidence of this shift came on Thursday, as the Commerce Department revised sharply upward its estimate of economic growth in the second quarter to a healthy annual pace of 3.7 percent, from an initial estimate of 2.3 percent. At the same time, the Labor Department, in reporting another drop in weekly unemployment claims, provided further evidence that the job market was on the mend. * * * With markets remaining on edge, investors are already turning their attention to coming data about the economy’s course, which will help determine whether the Federal Reserve will make its long-awaited move to raise interest rates in September or wait until later meetings. 

To project growth at an annual rate of 3.7% for any length of time is a classic example of neoclassical trickle-down optimism. The annual rate of GDP (income) growth has been around 1% since 2008, and that includes the income at the top. And the job market cannot really be mending at such a pace with median incomes drastically falling, as dictated by the QTM (Craig Roberts, July 8, 2012, (here):

And while median income is falling, quite naturally, household borrowing must increase to keep up effective levels of effective demand.  The following graph (reproduced from azizonomics blog, here) shows private sector debt as a percent of GDP over the last century. Americans were relatively cash rich after WW II, a condition that persisted until the depression-era 1930 debt/GDP ratio returned in the late 1990s:

US-Private-Debt-as-a-Percent-of-GDP

Meanwhile, as reported by the St. Louis Fed (here), corporations “are holding record amounts of cash,” and cash holdings have grown rapidly since 1995: 

In 2011, cash holdings amounted to nearly $5 trillion, more than for any other year in the series, which starts in 1980. The increases in cash holdings grew steeper from 1995 to 2010, with an annual rate of growth of 10 percent (from $1.22 trillion to $4.97 trillion).

Here is their graph of the growth of the aggregate cash and equivalents of U.S. firms: 

Aggregate Cash and Equivalents of U.S. Firms And here is their graph of the ratio of cash to net corporate assets:

Ratio of Cash to Net AssetsAccording to the attached report “Why are Corporations Holding So Much Cash?” by  Juan M. Sánchez and Emircan Yurdagul (here):

A close look at the balance sheets of publicly traded U.S. firms shows that their cash holdings have increased dramatically since the mid-1990s except for a slowdown around the financial crisis. The two explanations most frequently given for the growth in cash pertain to fiscal policy and structural factors.

Fiscal policy affects cash holdings in two ways, both of which involve taxes. First, public firms are seeing their profits rise elsewhere in the world; if these firms were to bring these profits from overseas operations back to the U.S., the profits would be relatively heavily taxed. Second, uncertainty about future taxes is on the rise.

Ah yes, taxation! We’ll get to that shortly. But first, we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions emerging from the Schwartz article: (a) How can the rate of GDP growth be expected to increase with median incomes in constant decline? (b) Doesn’t the ominous rise of private household debt portend further GDP decline? and (c) What does the huge increase in corporate holdings of idle cash tell us about why this is happening?

The answer to the last question clearly lies in the growing inequality of income and wealth distribution. When U.S. corporations are sitting on $5 trillion of cash, in tax-avoidance mode, it is obvious that they have far too much money which is not being invested and circulated throughout the economy. In terms of the QTM, this is a glacial pace of the velocity of money. This money obviously has not trickled down — and these are the conditions of incipient depression. 

Trickle-Down and the Laffer Curve

It’s all about avoiding taxation, and the trickle-down propaganda assault has come from both directions: As just discussed, the entire weight of neoclassical ideology is thrown behind the assertion that cutting income taxation of the rich investment class is good policy, because they will “work” harder and can obtain limitless additional wealth without hurting anyone else. Regardless whether that idea seems silly on its face, the QTM demonstrates its absurdity.

From the other direction, the argument is made that attempts to increase taxation of the rich capitalists will backfire, because they will lose the will to “work” for more money. When that happens, the argument goes, these wealthy “job providers” will invest less, pick up their marbles and get out of the game.

This argument is perhaps even less credible than the first. Warren Buffett has underscored the obvious point: “People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off.” (“Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” by Warren E. Buffett, The New York Times, Op-ed, August 14, 2011, here). From the accumulation of trillions of idle cash just discussed, it is evident that it doesn’t take an actual tax increase to cause the hoarding of financial wealth at the top.

Lest it escape our attention how unimaginably huge the incredible $3.75 trillion growth of idle corporate wealth between 1995 and 2010 really is, consider this: The distance light travels in a year is about 5.86 trillion miles, and the closest star to our sun is Alpha Centauri, about 4.37 light years away. For a hypothetical trip to Alpha Centauri, at a cost of $1/mile, that idle wealth would be enough get you about 1/7 of the way there. The fastest spacecraft ever launched, Voyager 1, “would take well over 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri” (Paul Gilster, Centauri Dreams, here). Thus, in our hypothetical, the idle cash would finance about 10,000 years of space travel at the speed of Voyager 1! Even with that analogy, the scope of this problem remains virtually unimaginable.     

In an attempt to provide a patina of legitimacy to the argument, University of Chicago economist Arthur Laffer unveiled, at a 1974 Washington, D.C. dinner party with Jude Wanniski, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. a graph that has become known as the “Laffer Curve” (“The Laffer Curve: Past , Present and Future,” by Arthur Laffer, The Heritage Foundation, June 1, 2004, here). Here is a frequently published version of the curve:

Laffer-curve 3This symmetrical bell-shaped government revenue curve is based on the argument that no government revenue will be collected if the top marginal income tax rate is zero (which is obviously true) or if the top rate is 100% (which is essentially untrue, since CEOs reaching the top income tax rate in a tax year probably would not decide to shut down their corporations until the following year).

Since the top income tax rate has never been at 100% in U.S. experience, this is entirely a matter of fanciful speculation. Moreover, to suggest as this formulation of the government revenue curve does, that optimum revenues are achieved at a 50% top tax rate ignores the U.S. experience between 1945 and 1982, when the middle class grew and flourished and there was steady growth and prosperity, and the top rate was at 91% and 70%.

Econometricians have estimated the optimal tax rate for the United States at over 80%. Here is an optimum revenue curve generated by British economist Sir Tony Atkinson and Australian economist Andrew Leigh, from the Twentieth Century income tax data of five Anglo-Saxon income tax systems: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K.,  and the U.S. (here):      Tax revenue Atkinson dp4937

Focusing solely on the United States, the French economists Emanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, together with Stephanie Stantcheva, developed a complex “three elasticity” model, and though they published a revised paper in 2013 (“Optimal Taxation of Top Labor Incomes: A Tale of Three Elasticities,” by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Stefanie Stantcheva, revised March 2013, WP 17617, here), their conclusions remained the same. Although their model was different, and they isolated the U.S. experience, they too estimated an optimal top income tax rate of 83%. Their substantive conclusion (“Taxing the 1%: Why the top tax rate could be over 80%,” by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva, VOX CEPR’s Policy Portal, December 8, 2011, here) is unequivocal:

The top 1% of US earners now command a far higher share of the country’s income than they did 40 years ago. This column looks at 18 OECD countries and disputes the claim that low taxes on the rich raise productivity and economic growth. It says the optimal top tax rate could be over 80% and no one but the mega rich would lose out.  

 Summary

This post provides only a sampling of the ideology generated by neoclassical economics to defend the interests of wealth. The primary threat perceived to wealth, naturally enough, has always been taxation. It is sobering to confront the array of truly bad arguments that have been advanced in the successful effort to oppose the taxation of wealth and top incomes. The “trickle-down” fantasy has been the most successful of these bad ideas, and it controls taxation policy in the United States today.

Unfortunately, as is becoming increasingly apparent each year, the downside of regressive taxation is decline and, ultimately, collapse. Without significant tax reform in the U.S., and in some other major industrialized countries, the U.S. and global economies are not too many years away from a truly disastrous collapse.

JMH – 9/7/2015 

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Postscript: What We Must Do

Wisdom is a strange commodity. Most of the time we don’t recognize it when it infiltrates our addled brains, and it is always hard-won and a long time coming. Yesterday’s post “Krugman v. Stiglitz — Debt v. Taxation” deserves this postscript, for having written it, I have arrived at what I hope readers will agree is a wise epiphany, for the difference between blundering along as the United States government continues to do — feeding the concentration of wealth and income at the top — and finding a way to stop the madness, is the difference that will determine whether our children and grandchildren can ultimately survive. Yes, it’s that serious. Here’s my summary of what I believe I have learned about our current choices on how to proceed:

The Problem:

  • Money is debt, and traditional monetary policy won’t help at all, because by creating more money it will just keep feeding inequality, and inflating debt bubbles;
  • Janet Yellen (apparently)  and Ben Bernanke before her (assuredly) don’t understand this. For his part, Bernanke idolized Milton Friedman’s “free market” philosophy that said, in effect, everything will be fine if we just give free rein to entrepreneurs and corporations, and there is no such thing as “too rich”;
  • John Maynard Keynes, in 1935, provided essential insights with his “General Theory,” which said there are three truly independent variables (independent of each other) in a market economy: (1) the interest rate; (2) society’s propensity to consume; and (3) the “marginal efficiency of capital” or the “cost of capital” (i.e., the present value of all expected future returns on investment). I became intimately familiar with the cost of capital in my career, and affirm that Keynes’s marginal efficiency of capital is identical to the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) used to estimate the cost of equity capital;
  • The “General Theory” boils down to this — as long as there is enough demand in the population, and enough money to spend, there will be sufficient expectation of future returns on investment to prompt investing in growth and jobs. Changes in the interest rate, in normal times, can make it easier or harder for firms to borrow money needed for additional investment;     
  • But these are not normal times. Now we must abandon the idea that interest rate manipulation can influence the demand for new capital. It won’t work, because there is already far more than enough money out there for new investment, sitting idle, because it came from the former middle class, which no longer has that money to spend;
  • That is true because of all the many trillions of dollars of economic rent extracted from the economy by the top 0.1% and the top 0.01%, as Joseph Stiglitz so ably argues;
  • These trillions of dollars of economic rent stayed at the top because of the tax reductions for the richest Americans and their corporations engineered by the Reagan revolution;    
  • Because income and wealth concentration at the top drastically reduces growth, the U.S. economy will continue to decline, sinking into ever-deeper depression;
  • There is a more immediate problem, however: The federal government already is so deeply in debt that a major fiscal crisis is threatened, and continuing to increase the money supply only exacerbates that problem, inflating more debt bubbles;
  • We now have to worry that a significant increase in the interest rate will provoke another crash, which means that safety requires maintaining a zero interest rate indefinitely.

The Solution:

  • Re-institute very high levels of income taxation at the very top; tax the top 1% or so at a marginal FIT rate of about 70%, the top 0.1% or so at about an 80% rate, and the top 0.01% at a rate of 85-90%, as we did after World War II. That is not just the top priority, it is essential;
  • Use the money, first and foremost, to deflate debt bubbles — retire student debt, vehicle debt, medical debt, mortgage debt, and so forth, in a careful, systematic way;
  • Stimulate consumer demand and growth: increase and enforce the minimum wage, and provide more assistance to the indigent and disabled veterans. Remember, the more money they have, the more they can spend;
  • Use the money as well to improve our dedication to medical care, and institute a single-payer health care system; and to seriously invest in education and a renewed emphasis on scientific thinking and progress;
  • And certainly not least, use the money to invest in infrastructure improvements at home, and in saving the planet from the looming disaster posed by global warming. These priorities will create booming industries and millions of jobs;
  • Enter into international agreements that curb the excesses of the banking and financial industries, and avoid those that lock in advantages for the corporate profiteering.

The Prognosis:

If this sounds like “socialism” that’s because that is exactly what it is. We’ve operated under perverse ideas of “socialism” that demonize labor and work for far too long. Let’s agree to pursue the objective defined by Adam Smith and the classical economists, namely, a society in which the purpose of economic activity is the optimization of the public welfare, not personal gain.

Can this happen overnight, or even at all? We can be certain that corporatism is dedicated to preventing such a development. Two advocates who are not especially optimistic in this regard are Thom Hartmann (The Crash of 2016) and Joseph Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality). I recommend these two books to everyone — put them right at the top of your reading list.

Then do your best, which is all any of us can do. It’s for our children and grandchildren.

JMH – 8/22/2015 

   

 

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Krugman v. Stiglitz — Debt v. Taxation

I have noted before that two of America’s best-known economists, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both Nobel Prize winners, are in extreme disagreement on the causes and implications of and remedies for, America’s inequality crisis. Both are politically progressive, but their disagreement is profound and fundamental. Quite literally, it affects what they think about how a modern capitalist market economy like the U.S. economy works and grows. Of course, they agree that our federal government is part of the economy, and that what it does and doesn’t do matters a great deal. Neither of them is intellectually even close to the insensible libertarian economic ideology. But I am prompted to publish this short post today because of Paul Krugman’s Op-ed in this morning’s New York Times (8/21/2015), “Debt is Good” (here). Krugman’s worldview is considerably different from that explained in detail Stiglitz more than two years ago in his book The Price of Inequality, and also more recently in a New York Times Op-ed (4/14/2014): “A Tax System Stacked Against the 99 Percent, (here).

In “Debt is Good,” Krugman re-emphasizes the arguments about public debt he has been making for a long time:

Believe it or not, many economists argue that the economy needs a sufficient amount of public debt out there to function well. And how much is sufficient? Maybe more than we currently have. That is, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that part of what ails the world economy right now is that governments aren’t deep enough in debt.

I know that may sound crazy. After all, we’ve spent much of the past five or six years in a state of fiscal panic, with all the Very Serious People declaring that we must slash deficits and reduce debt now now now or we’ll turn into Greece, Greece I tell you.

But the power of the deficit scolds was always a triumph of ideology over evidence, and a growing number of genuinely serious people — most recently Narayana Kocherlakota, the departing president of the Minneapolis Fed — are making the case that we need more, not less, government debt.

Krugman argues that government debt can do useful things, like pay for needed infrastructure improvements, and that a time of extremely low interest rates is a good time to borrow. Beyond that, he concurs with the idea that “having at least some government debt outstanding helps the economy” because “the debt of stable, reliable governments provides ‘safe assets’ that help investors manage risks, make transactions easier and avoid a destructive scramble for cash.”

Now, in principle the private sector can also create safe assets, such as deposits in banks that are universally perceived as sound. In the years before the 2008 financial crisis Wall Street claimed to have invented whole new classes of safe assets by slicing and dicing cash flows from subprime mortgages and other sources. 

But all of that supposedly brilliant financial engineering turned out to be a con job: When the housing bubble burst, all that AAA-rated paper turned into sludge. So investors scurried back into the haven provided by the debt of the United States and a few other major economies. In the process they drove interest rates on that debt way down.

We need to take a close look at this perspective: There is certainly some false ideology behind the view that more government debt is always tolerable, and that centers around the idea, promoted for more than the last one-half century by Paul Samuelson, that the U.S. economy will always grow itself out of decline and, once at full, optimal employment and running on all cylinders, will not have to worry about government debt. That fantasy is based on a lot of assumptions that don’t pan out, like perfect competition, perfect efficiency, continuing full employment, and so on — and notably, it takes no account of the drag on growth caused by the ever-increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top, and the increasing inequality caused by the interest on the debt itself. It further assumes responsible debt management by the government, and that has been lacking since 1980.

Indeed, the debt has grown continuously since 1980, in response to tax cuts at the top of the income ladder. The debt was needed to replace revenues lost due to the tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers, and it has effectively financed those cuts. Now, over forty years later, the total of the national debt has grown to over $18 trillion, and the federal government is running deficits every year, so the debt is growing. The holders of the U.S. debt have what is known as a “perpetual annuity,” because none of the principle is being repaid, but they collect continuously accruing interest.

Even though interest rates are low today, the question is, with the national debt at over $18 trillion and growing, and interest obligations on the existing balance compounding exponentially, don’t we have to worry about, at some point, stopping the bleeding? I addressed my concerns in this area in detail in an earlier blog post (“Inequality and Debt, Dysfunctional Forecasting, and the Discomfort Zone on the Left” (here). and in letters to the editor of the Albany Times Union (“Reinstating higher tax levels crucial,” 1/21/2015 (here); “Tell truth about interest on debt,” 8/19/2014 (here). 

The Congressional Budget Office, in its Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014-2024, August 2014 (here) warned (p. 2):

The persistent and growing deficits that CBO projects would result in increasing amounts of federal debt held by the public. * * * The large and increasing amount of federal debt would have serious negative consequences, including the following: 

* Increasing federal spending for interest payments, 

* Restraining economic growth in the long term,

* Giving policymakers less flexibility to respond to unexpected challenges, and

* Eventually increasing the risk of a fiscal crisis (in which investors would demand high interest rates to buy the government’s debt. 

In its February 2014 outlook (here), CBO stated: “Over the next decade, debt held by the public will be significantly greater than at any time since just after World War II. With debt so large, federal spending on interest payments will increase substantially as interest rates return to more typical levels” (p. 7).

CBO’s projections for the growth of debt interest, relative to federal budget items, is alarming: “Net interest,” that is interest paid out by the federal government net of interest collected from various sources, was expected to more than triple from 2014 to 2024, “the result of both projected growth of federal debt and a rise in interest rates.” (February report, p. 3 In the February report, net interest was projected to rise from $233 billion in 2014 to $880 billion in 2024. In the August update, these projections were reduced slightly, from $231 billion to $799 billion.

Leaving aside forecasting issues, and CBO’s failure to model the effect of increasing income and wealth redistribution on growth, the growth of net interest is swamping federal discretionary expenditures. Over the entire period, the defense budget is more than one-half of all discretionary spending, and it was projected in both the initial and revised Outlook to grow from $594 billion in 2014 to $716 billion in 2024. Under the initial projection, net interest would exceed the entire defense budget by 2021, and under the reduced projection of net interest, it would roughly equal the defense budget by 2022.

It is inconceivable, in these circumstances, that the federal debt could be considered “safe assets,” and the CBO’s concerns about a fiscal crisis materializing seem very real. Referring to the Crash off 2008, Krugman said: “When the housing bubble burst, all that AAA-rated paper turned into sludge. So investors scurried back into the haven provided by the debt of the United States and a few other major economies. In the process they drove interest rates on that debt way down.” Why should investors apply different standards to U.S. government debt? What would it take, we have to wonder, for the national debt to turn into sludge?

Stiglitz has a much more realistic perspective on all of this. He warns about the dangers of excessive debt, and recommends a series of reforms to halt the redistribution of income and wealth to the top, a process which, after all, has resulted in growing bubbles of student debt, automobile debt, general consumer debt and more home mortgage debt. In his 2014 Op-ed, Stiglitz stated:

What should shock and outrage us is that as the top 1 percent has grown extremely rich, the effective tax rates they pay have markedly decreased. Our tax system is much less progressive than it was for much of the 20th century. The top marginal income tax rate peaked at 94 percent during World War II and remained at 70 percent through the 1960s and 1970s; it is now 39.6 percent. Tax fairness has gotten much worse in the 30 years since the Reagan “revolution” of the 1980s.  

Of course the issue of the progressiveness of America’s taxation, from top to bottom, is more complicated than just the top rate, but the work done by economists Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman, and Thomas Piketty, among others, has made it clear that income is concentrating very high within the top 1%, and even high within the top 0.1%. Consequently, the top marginal FIT rate has enormous consequences for growth. By 2014, the wealth of the top 1% had increased by more than $20 trillion since the inauguration of the Reagan revolution. All new income produced by any stimulation more federal borrowing might provide, in current circumstances, is simply ending up in the top 1%.

It appears to Krugman, apparently, that we must choose between increasing the money supply even more or increasing the progressiveness of taxation, and noting the intransigence of the wealthy and their GOP spear carriers, he has evidently opted to argue for the former. But the income and wealth is being siphoned off at the top and removed to offshore havens or sunk into expensive mansions, yachts, private airplanes, rare works of art, and real estate, all at rapidly inflating prices. The velocity of money is substantially slowed as it is kept pout of the hands of people who need it and would spend it.

There is no alternative but to reform the tax system significantly, to increase its effective progressiveness. For everyone’s sake, we need to appreciate that taxing the rich is not only the best option, it is the only workable option left.

JMH – 8/21/2015 

 

  

  

 

     

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