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By George P. Brockway, originally published September 22, 1997

1997-9-22 Why a Zero Deficit Means Failure titleI DON’T want to alarm anyone, but I think it important for us to realize that the United States of America is about to sail into unfamiliar waters. What is more, those waters are inaccurately charted.

Many years ago I had occasion to consult charts of the Aegean Sea, the island pocked body of water between Greece and Asia Minor. From 1522 to 1912 the principal southern islands were occupied by the Ottoman Turks, and from 1912 to 1947 by Italy. I used British revisions of charts originally prepared by the Italian Navy. Scores of tiny islands and mid sea rock formations had notations beside them: “Reported 2.6 mi.   north, 1949,” or “Reported 1.9 mi. south, 1948.”

The economic waters we are now entering are at least as badly charted. The years 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1956, 1957, 1960, and 1969 are the only ones since the great Crash of 1929 in which we managed to balance the Federal budget. As we shall see, what happened in those eight years is the diametrical opposite of what is generally assumed, and our misconception is driving us in an unexpected and unhappy direction.

We need to understand this because we are approaching another balanced budget much faster than anyone thought possible. Indeed, the embarrassing fact is that tax revenues are so good in today’s relatively affluent society that the budget would balance itself in a couple of years if Congress just sat on its hands and watched[1].

The universal mantra has been that we must at any cost balance the budget by 2002. We came within two votes of .launching a Constitutional amendment to that effect. I suppose most people have forgotten the reasoning behind the mantra. Forgetfulness, of course, is what mantras, like the Big Lie, are for. No matter.

The various reasons that were given for balancing the budget a couple of years ago appear to have been reduced to one: President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and all their economic advisers say that the balancing will lower the interest rate and hence save good citizens money as well as make for prosperity.

Yes, but I seem to remember that six months ago-on March 25, 1997, to be precise-the Federal Reserve Board kicked the Federal funds rate up a quarter of a point, and soon thereafter every other interest rate went up at least that much. What was the budget news then? There was certainly a noisy squabble going on, but was there anyone, inside the Beltway or out, who was proposing to increase the deficit? If no one was even thinking about such a thing, why did the interest rate go up?

We don’t have to reach back as far as March 25 for incongruities. In the midst of the budgeteers’ recent self-congratulations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor announced that the official unemployment rate had fallen to 4.8 per cent (it’s since crept up a tenth of a point or two). That prompted a flood of professional prophecies that the Federal Reserve Board would have to (the Board seems never to act of its own free will) raise the interest rate again to keep more people from getting jobs.

And shortly thereafter the International Monetary Fund, well-known for its conventional views, cautioned that “undue delay in tightening monetary policy could undermine the current expansion.”

Look at the crosscurrents we have drifted into:

  • News about an imminent budget balance, which is supposed to presage prosperity.
  • News about falling unemployment, which you might think would be an essential element of prosperit
  • Prophecies about necessarily rising interest rates, which must be bad if it’s good to balance the budget to get lower rates.

While we were being buffeted by these currents, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made his semiannual reports to Congress, partly televised on C-Span.

I always look forward to the televised versions of these reports, because they often include questions by Congressmen and answers by the Chairman. The Times and the Wall Street Journal usually provide little more than a summary of the Chairman’s prepared remarks. Constant readers may remember my excitement two years ago (“What Greenspan Really Told Congress,” NL, July 17-31, 1995), when I scooped the world with the news that Greenspan doesn’t believe in NAIRU (or a natural rate of unemployment), that he doesn’t think we must have high interest rates in order to sell our bonds, and that he does think the increasing inequality of incomes is the most serious economic problem now facing the United States.

No doubt chagrined by my scooping them, the rest of the media have not noticed my reportage (though I have a videotape of Greenspan’s words). Neither were they moved to fully report Greenspan’s latest testimony, although in the course of it he had a wary yet respectful exchange with Congressman Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois.

Jackson questioned the wisdom of relying on the official unemployment figures, since they count as unemployed only people who looked for work last week. A better number, Jackson suggested, would include those too discouraged to continue looking for work, those too turned off ever to have looked for lawful work, those working part time when they would rather work full time, and those slogging away at jobs for which they are overqualified. If all these people were counted, Jackson said, unemployment would be nearer 20 million than the officially reported 6 million or 7 million.

1997-9-22 Jesse L. Jackson Jr..jpgGreenspan replied that he did not know enough about the people Jackson mentioned to use them as a basis for policy, but he acknowledged that they exist. His acknowledgment is my scoop for this week. For I submit that an economy incapable of providing proper jobs for 15 or 20 per cent of its work force is not an adequate economy. It may be “prosperous,” but it does not come close to doing what an economy ought to do. So we have a fourth crosscurrent to reckon with as we approach the waters whose charts are questionable.

PRESIDENT CLINTON and Speaker Gingrich and practically the entire economics profession, as I have said, are united in steering us toward a balanced budget on the theory that this will reward us with lower interest rates. A look at the records, however, reveals that in every one of the eight post-Depression years with a balanced Federal budget the prime interest rate (to which most rates we pay are related) went up, not down. We must conclude, therefore, that either our leaders or the records (or both) have lost their bearings. Clinton, for instance, claims credit for reducing the Federal deficit and says it has resulted in lower interest rates. Granted, recent budgets have boasted a reduced deficit. The Republicans, not surprisingly, insist they brought about the reductions, but that’s not what is plainly wrong with the President’s story.

What’s wrong is that although the deficit has gone down in all five years of his watch, the interest rate went up in three of them -1994, 1995 and 1997-and the prime rate is now two full points higher than it was when Clinton took office.

In other words, five years of reinventing government-of “it’s the economy, stupid”; of the end of welfare as we know it; of the end of the era of big government-have brought forth, not a decrease, but an increase of 32 per cent in the prime interest rate. The emperor, his advisers and his loyal opposition may have plenty of new clothes; they just have them on inside out and backward. There is no empirical evidence whatever that a falling deficit causes or inspires or favors or even accompanies lower interest rates.

Nor is there evidence for a contrary causation: A high deficit has not automatically produced high interest rates. Consider the famous years 1981 through 1986, when Ronald Reagan was President and Paul A. Volcker was the Federal Reserve Board Chairman. The prime interest rate fell from 21.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent. Was this the result of a falling budget deficit? Hardly. The deficit more than tripled in those years, and the interest rate went down at an equally record breaking pace.

Conventional economics, incidentally, teaches that high deficits cause high inflation, and that high interest rates cure inflation. Consequently, true believers should expect that inflation soared in the Reagan- Volcker years. Again the records belie conventional expectations. In 1981 the annual change in the Consumer Price Index was 10.3 per cent. In 1986 it was only 1.9 per cent.

In short, the economic waters we are now entering are charted to correlate high deficits with high interest rates and low inflation. A realistic mapping, though, shows that low or nonexistent deficits are not associated with falling interest rates, while high interest rates are commonly associated with high inflation.

The discrepancies between the conventional view of the economy and its recent performance lead me to suggest the future may prove Proust was right in observing that our desires may be fulfilled on condition that they do not bring the happiness we expect of them. We may succeed in balancing the budget, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the interest rate will fall as far as our leaders and advisers expect. Even if the rate should drop a point or two, it is unlikely that business will correspondingly expand. If anything, a balanced budget will act as a constraint on business, in the same way that the drive for a balanced budget has constrained expenditures for maintaining our infrastructure, for improving the lot of the disadvantaged among us, and for nurturing progress in the arts and sciences.

Is there no limit to the deficit that we can sustain? Sure there is a limit. My father advised my wife and me always to stretch a little when buying a home for our family. That way we could, and did, steadily improve our standard of living. Naturally, we had to be able to pay the interest on our successive mortgages. It is the same with a capitalist nation. Capitalism is based on borrowing as much as it can from the future in order to build for the future.

A zero deficit is a confession of a failure of faith in the future, especially when 20 million citizens lack proper jobs.

The New Leader

[1] As it happened, over the four years following the publishing of this article the Clinton Administration balanced the Federal Budget four years running: http://www.factcheck.org/2008/02/the-budget-and-deficit-under-clinton/

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 17, 1995
1995-1-30 The Phantom Tax Cut title

TWO YEARS AGO, reporting on the Little Rock “economic summit” (remember that?), I wrote sadly: “It was a dismal performance. For it was the supply side all over again. To be sure, the words ‘supply side’ could be read on no one’s lips; no one traced a laughable curve on a cocktail napkin; and the ideas were restated less breathlessly than Jack Kemp does it, and with a profundity beyond the capabilities of the Great Communicator. But if you had your eyes closed, there were times you could easily have imagined you were listening in on a planning session of Ronald Reagan’s early advisers.”

I was nevertheless confident that common sense and common decency would prevail more often in the Clinton White House than during the Reagan and Bush years, and that this would “make the Clinton Presidency worthy of being remembered.” Cheering the reiterated plea for full funding of Head Start, I concluded that the low-tech (and hence demand stimulating) operation would quickly get significant amounts of money circulating, and therefore would “do more to stimulate the economy this year, and every year of the program’s existence, than the schemes to restore the investment tax credit, to rehabilitate IRAs, and to cut taxes for the middle class-all of which are bum Reaganesque ideas we have already tried and found wanting.”

Well, the Reaganesque ideas are back again and are likely to be re-enacted by supply-side Republicans and “New” Democrats – none of whom is as stylish as the Bourbons, but all of whom, as Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, “have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” In the process, what is represented as a version of the GI Bill of Rights for retraining downsized workers will be corrupted by a doctrinaire eagerness to support proprietary education mills.

Since anyone who is curious can look up the sorry record of previous investment tax credits and IRAs, let’s talk a bit about the tax cut for the middle class, arguably a demand-side action. The media have already noticed it will not amount to much – the equivalent of another couple of pizzas a month for every family. Still, the sheer number of pizzas is mindboggling and may result in supply-side expansion in the bakery industry as well as demand-side pressure for more laxatives and anti-gas pharmaceuticals, which will, in turn, inspire the creation of more sick-making television commercials. Although I am not now and never have been a pizza man, I have no great objection to any of that.

Nor do I have a strong objection to the elastic, not to say formless, definitions we are being given of the middle class. After all, speaking sociologically, as I occasionally do (“The Golden Mean,” NL, November 2, 1987), in any stable society the middle class is the society, the ultra-rich being exclusive and the infra-poor excluded.

Speaking economically, though, I find it hard to believe the Republicans believe anyone earning $200,000 a year (that is, snugly in the top 1 per cent of the population) needs a handout for an extra pizza. And I am sure everyone making $8,850 a year (the full-time minimum wage) should have a handout for more than that.

The President’s tax cut proposal presumes $75,000 a year is the top of the middle class (still almost 95 per cent of the population) and is estimated to cost $60 billion over five years – or something less than two-tenths of 1 per cent of the gross domestic product. That’s not even pizzas; that’s peanuts. It is barely a third of the woefully inadequate Clinton “stimulus package” the Republicans filibustered to death a year and a half ago.

So what’s all the fuss about? The fuss is about the votes of the small percentage of the American electorate that is not too lazy to go to the polls. Specifically, about its fear and loathing of the way things are going in the country; its stouthearted determination not to try to understand why the prospects aren’t brighter; its puerile anger against imagined tormentors; and its desperation for a quick fix, especially one that is mean to somebody else. An electorate with such qualifications can be bought and sold and made dizzy by spin doctors – who are undoubtedly a growth industry, but beyond the normal purview of this column.

For this column, the question is, What difference does all the fuss make to the economy? And the answer is, Precious little, and most of that counterproductive.

The tax break for the middle class (whether Clinton’s, Minority Leader Gephardt‘s, or the Republican Contract‘s) will of course be paid for by the middle class. Who else is there? Indeed, the paying will undoubtedly come to more than the cutting, particularly for those in the bottom half of that protean middle class. There are two principal reasons for this.

First and most important (constant readers may be certain) is the Federal Reserve Board, which considers itself entitled to frustrate every program, especially every promising program, of the constitutionally elected Executive and Legislature. In the notorious black wit of former Chairman W M. Martin, the Reserve’s aim in life is “to take away the punch bowl just when the party gets going.” It is sure as shooting going to raise the rate again if the talk about a tax cut continues. A tax cut at least pretends to give people money to spend, and people with money to spend give the Federal Reserve Board goose bumps.

When the Board gets goose bumps, it raises the interest rate. It can’t be bothered with the fact that this increases both the cost of producing and the cost of consuming, and consequently is doubly inflationary. It’s all the Reserve can think to do, even though inducing inflation while pretending to fight it makes the Reserve look silly.

Something more than silliness is involved. If the prices of consumer loans are raised, borrowers have less money to buy things with. ‘But where does their money go? It goes to the banks, of course. For example, I have a little adjustable rate mortgage. As a result of the Board’s recent maneuvers, my interest charges this year will be about $700 greater than they were last year. That won’t break me; but if the Board keeps it up (and you can bet it will), my pizza-size tax cut will disappear – roughly 10 times over – into the shining coffers of my friendly banker.

As Deep Throat said, follow the money. The famous middle-class tax cut, assuming there is one, will mean the United States of America will have less money to spend (and I’ll get to that in a moment). Congress will dangle that money before our eyes; but when we try to get our hands on it, the Federal Reserve Board will whisk it away and give it to our bankers, along with some money we thought was safely ours.

Every time the Reserve raises the interest rate to “head off inflation,” it effects a massive transfer of wealth and income from mostly middle-class borrowers to mostly rich lenders. Never mind what Polonius advised about borrowing; he was a Renaissance courtier, and not an over wise one. Borrowing is what modern capitalism is all about. Today’s borrowers have done nothing to deserve having their money taken away from them, and today’s lenders have done nothing to deserve being given it. You can forget about your pizza; your banker will be eating cake.

So much for the first reason why the middle-class tax cut will cost the middle class money.

THE SECOND REASON is that most of the “savings” proposed to pay for the cuts are fake, illusory, smoke-and-mirrors. I suppose it is true that, as Vice President Gore said the other day, there is an Agricultural Department field office within a day’s horseback ride from every farm. That sounds worse than it is; it doesn’t take many 50-mile radius circles to cover most farm country.

Schemes like turning air traffic controllers over to a government or private corporation (and there are a lot of such schemes) amount to nothing more than getting the costs off the Federal budget. The costs won’t vanish; they will reappear in the form of local taxes or user fees to be paid directly or indirectly by the middle class. Either that, or the airlines’ insurance premiums will take off into the wild blue yonder, and will have to be covered by higher fares.

Then there are all the truly vicious notions to eliminate or underfund programs that are already underfunded, like housing (as though there weren’t a million or more homeless fellow citizens in the streets), and school lunches and food stamps (as though ill nourishment were not a fact of life in the United States), and Medicaid (as though we have solved our health problems by yakking them to death). Not to mention Head Start, which was so promising two years ago. Or ending welfare as we know it by sending kids to orphanages and putting their mothers to work at jobs that won’t get them out of poverty, but will violate mainstream economists’ theory of a natural rate of unemployment and so give the Federal Reserve Board another excuse to raise the interest rate to head off inflation.

“Saving” by dumping on welfare and relief programs is what will cost the middle class – and the rich, too-many times more than their tax cuts will be worth. Supply-side Republicans and New Democrats are sensible enough not to like our decayed inner cities and rural slums, and they are reasonable enough to be afraid of the sullen, desperate people who live there. They seem to think there is an underclass, and that it can be cowed with long mandatory prison sentences and the death penalty. They shouldn’t count on it.

But they should count on having their household expenses and local taxes increase to pay for more guns and locks and burglar alarms and insurance and police and judges and prisons, some of which will have to be in their backyard for lack of anyplace else to put them. This being the case, they would be wise to take a long, straight look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really are or want to be as self-righteous, callous and mean-minded as they are in danger of becoming.

 The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 4, 1993

1993-10-4 Health, Wealth and Taxes title

IT SAYS LITTLE for the presumed intelligence of American citizens that the opening dispute over President Clinton’s health care plan turned on whether it will be mainly financed by a payroll tax or a compulsory insurance premium paid by corporations. The fact of the matter was not at issue – only the name.

By any name, the probable method of financing will impede business enterprise, discourage hiring entry-level workers, encourage hiring part-time workers, put a damper on pay raises for full-time workers kept on the payroll, deepen the stagnation of our economy, and reduce our longed- for ability to compete in the new global village with Mexico and South Korea. Since these unpleasant consequences will be debated ad nauseam, it is almost certain that the tax (as House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia is right-a first!-in calling it) will be kept low, that the system will be inadequately funded, and that therefore it will be better than what we have now only in details, many of which might have been managed with less uproar.

You will note that the troubles mentioned will flow from the system of taxation, not from the way medical “suppliers” are paid or from the way medical care is “delivered.” It may be that these elements will be faulty, too, but those are separate questions.

We Americans talk endlessly about taxes, yet all we understand about them is that they are an expense. They cost money. Other things being equal, we are better off the fewer expenses we have to pay. In the case of taxes, of course, things are seldom equal. Not even Jack Kemp, who is opposed to all taxes in principle, could get along in a world without police and courts and armed forces and paved roads and the myriad other necessities taxes provide. It would be nice if we could enjoy these services without paying for them, and a few of us do manage to avoid some taxes. On the whole, though, the folk saying is correct, and taxes are as certain as death.

Since it does no good to sulk and stamp our feet and sob that we don’t like taxes, it would be the better part of wisdom to inquire what kinds of taxes are best for what purposes. One of President Bush‘s most irresponsible acts was his promise of no new taxes, and one of the electorate’s most irresponsible acts was the single-issue voting against him for breaking that promise. Some level of taxation is unavoidable, and we will surely need more funds to pay our medical bills. Still, some new taxes would be preferable to others.

In general, there are three kinds of taxes: (l) taxes on what exists, such as property taxes, estate taxes and poll taxes; (2) taxes on what is done, such as sales taxes, payroll taxes, excise taxes, franchises, and tariffs; and (3) taxes on income, such as personal income taxes and corporate profits taxes.

The Clinton medical plan will be paid for by taxes of the second sort-payroll taxes and excise taxes (a.k.a. sin taxes). All taxes on doing something can be avoided by doing nothing. But if you have a job, or hire someone to do a job, or buy something, then you pay a tax.

Such taxes have the virtue of being relatively easy to collect, but that’s about their only virtue. They are plainly and inescapably costs of doing business. The fewer people you employ, the lower your payroll taxes, so you are slow to hire additional employees. The less you buy, the less you have to pay in excise taxes that are invariably passed on to the consumer. It is a sad fact that most economists think it’s good and, indeed, “natural” to reduce employment (it improves “productivity”), and that it’s good to discourage consumption (it encourages “saving”). We have examined these professional delusions before and shall no doubt do so again; here let’s merely observe that payroll taxes will not constitute an improvement on, or even much of a change from, our current system of financing health care.

At present, medical insurance is a fringe benefit in most medium and large businesses. Because of skyrocketing costs, benefits are generally being reduced. Rising insurance premiums are also a factor in businesses deciding to rely as much as possible on part-time employees who don’t get the fringe benefits. There is no question that medical insurance is a tremendous load for businesses to carry, and that it operates like the Social Security tax as a cost of employing people. American automobile company executives claim medical insurance adds $2,000 or more to the cost of a new car, making it hard for them to compete in the global economy everyone talks about. Substituting some form of payroll tax for the insurance premiums will merely guarantee that every American enterprise is carrying the same burden; it will not reduce the weight.

Moreover, payroll taxes are passed back to the employee – not literally, perhaps, but effectively in the form of an argument against pay raises. And that’s not all. Businesses usually try to set prices to cover costs (including payroll taxes), plus a planned or “normal” profit (figured as a percentage of costs). If costs go up 10 per cent, and if “normal” profit is I0 per cent, prices must go up 11 per cent. Granted, no one can calculate that closely, because no one can tell what the future will bring; nevertheless, both profits and prices tend to move up faster than costs.

Now, you might think that spokesmen for industry would be 100 per cent opposed to taxes that make them raise prices and become less competitive. As it happens, they are about 50 per cent opposed – and it is this ambivalence in their opposition that gives the Clinton plan a chance to be enacted. What industry spokesmen are 100 per cent opposed to is the third kind of tax: a tax on personal income or corporate profits.

At first glance, the corporate tax seems ideal. You don’t have to pay it unless you have a profit.  It won’t interfere with your plan to start a new enterprise or expand an old one. It won’t bankrupt you. It is the next-to-the-last payout you make-and there’s the hitch. For the last payout you make is profits. It is a simple arithmetical fact that your after-tax profits will be lower than your before-tax profits.

THIS IS WHERE the morale of our system often breaks down, because the interests of the owners of an enterprise diverge from the interests of the enterprise itself and of most of its employees. The enterprise and its employees want to stay in business. The owners – the vast majority of them don’t even have a clear idea of what the enterprise does. They simply got touted onto it by their stockbroker and added it to their portfolio. Their connection may be more abstract than that: A mutual fund they own a few shares of, or a pension plan they participate in, may have a position in the enterprise.

1993-10-4 Health, Wealth and Taxes End of Economic Man advertThe situation calls to mind John Kenneth Galbraith‘s observation in Economics and the Public Purpose. Especially in big business, he pointed out, the corporate objective had changed from profit maximization to protection of “the planning system and its technicians.” In the 20 years since Galbraith’s groundbreaking book was published, another shift has occurred, largely as a result of the takeover and buyout frenzy of the 1980s.

Control of both the directors and management of many a big corporation now rests with investment bankers or their representatives, who, knowing little about the day-to-day operation of the business they have acquired, rely on a handful of executives to see that their cash cow is properly milked or, it may be, bilked. To ensure the devotion of the executives, the bankers generously reward them with absurd salaries, fantastic stock options, and even the last word in medical insurance, making them multimillionaires too.

There is one thing that is hated by multimillionaires like these: the personal income tax. They are rich, they congratulate themselves on their richness, and they think it unfair that they should be soaked for it. This sense of unfairness or isolation from the rest of us further alienates investors and their executives from the companies they control and helps account for the puzzling acquiescence of many of them in payroll taxes that can only hurt American business.

That they clearly understand how payroll taxes hurt is apparent from their vehement arguments against raising the minimum wage, which also affects prices, though to a lesser degree. But they have supported increases in the regressive Social Security tax, because it doesn’t much bother them personally. For the same reason they will support a payroll-based health care tax in preference to using the income tax, which might force them to pay their share of the load.

The final irony is that the true-blue believers in laissez-faire will attack President Clinton’s plan as the proposal of a liberal. Actually, it is the middle-of-the road proposal of a middle-of-the-roader. The President’s program is certainly better than what his opponents have proposed, but my mother always warned me that it wouldn’t greatly improve my health to play in the middle of the road.

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published June 14, 1993

1993-6-14 In Pursuit of a Fiscal Fantasy title

PRESIDENT CLINTON’S $31 billion “stimulus package” was defeated by a filibuster that was organized, not on the reasonable ground that the package was woefully inadequate, but on the fanciful ground that by increasing the deficit it would hurt the recovery now supposed to be under way. I want to talk about the alleged recovery, but first let’s pay our respects to the deficit.

Suppose we had an adequate stimulus – something on the order of $200 billion, rather than the proposed $31 billion. That kind of money could knock 5 points off the official unemployment figure, bringing it down to an arguably tolerable level of 2-per cent, and could start to do a job as well on those who are working part time or are too discouraged to look for work.

But could we afford it? Of course we could. The late Arthur Okun, a universally respected economist and the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors under LBJ, maintained that a 1 per cent rise in unemployment causes a 3 per cent fall in real national product. If Okun’s Law works backward and becomes a multiplier (not guaranteed), the 5 per cent fall in unemployment we’re after should result in a 15 per cent rise in output. That would be about $850 billion and should, in turn, yield about $210 billion in taxes at present rates – not to mention the gains for state and local governments, or the savings in reduced welfare outlays. So our massive stimulus could produce a modest reduction in the deficit. As Mr. Micawber would say, result happiness.

The result would still be far from misery even if Okun’s Law didn’t quite work backward, and even if the government proved incompetent in all the ways the naysayers say it is. If we had to borrow the entire $200 billion, the deficit would be increased by the interest, or by $13 billion–and if the Federal Reserve Board should miraculously decide to be on the same team as the rest of us, the interest could be as low as $6 billion.

Are you worried silly about the $16,750 that rabble-rousers say is your share of the national debt? Grow up. I have a $75,000 mortgage that I’ll not pay off if I live till I’m 105. The bank isn’t worried. My estate will pay it off, of course, and whoever buys the house will mortgage it again and will no doubt later refinance the mortgage to pay for some improvements or repairs. And so on. It’s a well-built house and should last (and be mortgageable) for another hundred years or more. All that’s necessary is for the successive owners to be able to pay the interest. The same is true of the United States of America and its national debt.

What is the alternative? It is proposed that we get government out of the way or off business’ back or whatever metaphor appeals to you, and let the present “recovery” rip. The good old free enterprise system, we are told, the very system our economists are teaching with such smashing success to Russia and Eastern Europe, would soon show that a man knows what to do with his money a lot better than some bureaucrat in Washington. You bet.

The big trouble with this prescription for prosperity, worked out by the classical economists, is that it is based on unrealizable assumptions. One assumption we’ve mentioned previously: full employment. A second is that a level playing field, of the kind the Wall Street Journal pines for, isn’t enough. The players must have at least fairly equivalent equipment. Adam Smith put it this way: “The whole of the advantages and disadvantages of the different employments of labor and stock must, in the same neighborhood, be either perfectly equal or continually tending toward equality.”

In addition, there’s an assumption that economists pretend doesn’t matter. All the buyers and all the sellers are assumed to know all about all the products available and the demand for them. Whoever believes this assumption should have followed me around last week as I shopped for a new automobile. I don’t even know how to kick the tires. A contemporary school of economists gets rid of this assumption with another, namely that everyone acts rationally and rationally expects everyone else to act rationally, too.

If you accept each of the assumptions, you probably can see some sense in the notion that an invisible hand will guide us to the recovery of our dreams. Don’t be too sure. If I really knew what I was doing when I shopped for a car, I’d make the best buy possible–and so would you and everyone else. One dealer would start to get all the business. Then the competitors would lower their prices, and pretty quickly there would be one big price war.

Short of collapse, there could be no end to such wars. All competitors can lower their prices by cutting their costs. Their costs are someone else’s prices, which likewise can be lowered by cutting costs. And so on ad infinitum. David Ricardo and his followers argued that this regress would be stopped by the costs of food and other basic things (called “wage goods”) that workers need to survive.

But the costs of wage goods are not immune to cutting, so the regress would continue. Very likely some people would lose their jobs as prices tumbled, although the classical theory merely calls for wages to fall. Either way, if the free market were left to its own devices, the price-cutting, cost-cutting, payroll-cutting, demand-cutting sequence would continue unabated until prices, payrolls, production, and profits all approached zero. The free market could not stop the process – nor, if they played the game by the rules, could any of the participants. The invisible hand pushes everyone and everything inexorably down.

The drama has a different ending in the scenario of Leon Walras, the patron theorist of free market analysis. He wrote that “production in free competition, after being engaged in a great number of small enterprises, tends to distribute itself among a number less great of medium enterprises, to end finally, first in a monopoly at cost price, then in a monopoly at the price of maximum gain.”

So take your pick. The Walrasian theory has free competition ending in monopoly. The more conventional theory, though it says nothing about an end, offers no reason why general disaster should not result.

There is, of course, a third outcome – what actually happens. For we take steps to prevent disaster, either by accident or by design, and those steps reveal that we are, by turns, do-gooders, pragmatists, and sponsors of crime.

In our role as do-gooders we enact child labor laws, minimum wage laws, worker-safety laws, social welfare laws, and many other laws to mitigate the horrors of free competition. It is not bad to do good – except in the eyes of conventional economics. In his speech launching the idea of a natural rate of unemployment, Milton Friedman condemned all altruistic measures. They would, he said, increase the natural rate of unemployment. Pre-Depression America, which knew very little of such things, is touted as a time of low unemployment. It was also a time of child labor, the 12-hour work day, labor injunctions, and similar amenities.

It must be confessed that we are more comfortable thinking of ourselves as pragmatists than as altruists. In any event, whereas businesspeople applaud the pronouncements of conventional economics, very few act in accordance with them. They may compete vigorously, but very few compete primarily on price, having learned (as a book of business advice once had it), “Don’t sell the steak. Sell the sizzle.” With less pressure on prices, there is less pressure on costs.

Finally, we are sponsors of the crimes we deplore. A character in the funnies used to say, crime don’t pay well. For most practitioners that may be true, but it pays enough above the bottom of the current legitimate pay scale to entice hundreds of thousands into making a career of it. If these people were to renounce housebreaking and carjacking and mugging, and were to look for decent work, their competition for jobs would push the legitimate pay scale even lower.

AND THAT’S not all. As John E. Schwarz and Thomas J. Volgy show in grim detail in The Forgotten Americans, there are 30 million working poor in America – people who are desperately trying to live the work ethic yet still cannot afford the basic necessities at the lowest realistic cost. Heartbreaking thousands of these people take a flier at drug running or prostitution just to survive.

We are, as I say, sponsors of all this crime and squalor. It serves to retard the free fall of the economy, and with our altruistic and pragmatic practices it will eventually help us to settle at a stopping point somewhere between here and the pits. Economics, however, takes time, and it will be years before we reach that point. When we do reach it, we will find ourselves in what economists call an equilibrium, with upwards of a quarter of our productive capacity unused, with 20 million of our people unemployed or underemployed, and with probably 50 million men, women and children living lives that are far from solitary but are nevertheless (in the rest of Hobbes’ phrase) poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I don’t suppose that, aside from a few fanatics for the apocalypse, there is anyone who is eager for such an equilibrium. But there are many millions who are capable of denying its possibility, and (as with other diseases) the denial makes its actuality the more deadly – especially since conventional economics can think of no way to upset the equilibrium, except by doing more of the same.

In the past, similar equilibria have been upset by wars. The Civil War made us a nation; World War I industrialized us; World War II got us out of the Great Depression. Professor Joseph A. Schumpeter celebrated the creative destructiveness of great new industries, like the railroads, which rendered canals obsolete, and the automobile, which doomed the horse-and-wagon. (Some expect the computer to play a similar role, but the information revolution is responsible for much of the payroll-cutting currently in progress, including its own.)

The thing about these equilibrium upsetters – these wars and these creative destroyers – is that they’ve all required ever bigger expenditures by ever bigger government. The expenditures for war are obvious; but often forgotten are the grants of public land to build the railroads, together with the postal contracts to keep them running, and the paving of streets and building of highways for the automobile. Is it conceivable that we can summon the wit and the will to make the expenditures that need to be made today?

I cannot conceive it. What is all too probable is that the welfare of the nation and of increasing millions of our fellow citizens will continue to be sacrificed to an accounting fantasy called a balanced budget.

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published May 19, 1993

1993-5-19 Why Productivity Will Unto Clintonomics title

THE FIRST COLUMN in this series, almost 12 years ago, was titled “Why Speculation Will Undo Reaganomics” (NL, September 7, 1981). Well, I was wrong. I was right enough in my analysis – that speculation would enrich the rich and impoverish the poor and bring on what we now call a credit crunch – but I naively could not imagine anyone being pleased with such an outcome. By last November, of course, a considerable majority of the voters did become displeased, if not with the enrichment of the rich and the impoverishment of the poor, at least with the stagnation that followed from the polarization of the economy.

I now feel possessed of another prophecy. And I hope I’m wrong again.

When I say productivity will undo Clintonomics, I mean just that. I don’t mean lack of productivity. I mean what the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Economist are always writing about, what Nobel laureates in economics from MIT are always talking about, what Labor Secretary Robert Reich is now planning to try to increase. I mean that to the extent that Clintonomics is successful in improving our productivity, it will fail to improve our standard of living.

If our aim is what all these worthies say it should be, we can achieve it by decreasing production, profits, employment and wages. In fact, this is what General Motors and IBM and other giants of our economy are doing today. The fashionable word for their activity is downsizing, and the purpose is to step up productivity. Given a modicum of managerial skill and luck, half of the downsized corporations may actually improve their rating on the productivity scale. But their production and profits and employment and wages will mostly be lower. And the national product and profits and employment and labor income will certainly be lower.

Productivity is not a new idea. It was an old idea when President Reagan, in his first year in office, created a 33-member National Productivity Advisory Committee headed by former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. You never heard of that committee? Who ever did? A year or so after its appointment I spent some time trying to find out what it had accomplished. Although I wrote as CEO of an American corporation, Simon did not answer my inquiries, nor did the White House. Finally, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was able to dig up for me three or four slim pamphlets published by a second productivity committee that had been created some months after the initial one. I still have the pamphlets somewhere in this mess I call my study. As I recall them, they were paeans to efficiency and might well have been written by Frederick Winslow Taylor a hundred years earlier.

When economists started playing with productivity they changed it radically. They defined it clearly enough as output per unit of input. In keeping with their passion for mathematics, though, they devised an equation to determine it and an index to rank performance. Since labor is by far the largest factor of input, they thought to simplify the equation by letting labor stand for all inputs. This had the further attraction of allowing them to quantify input in “real” rather than dollars-and-cents terms, as they would have had to do in order to add the input of labor to the inputs of land, capital, technology, and whatever other factors one might name. Mathematical economists tend to believe that money is not real and don’t like to talk about it in public, but their simplification, as I’ve shown in greater detail elsewhere (see The End of Economic Man, Revised–Adv.), causes a serious distortion.

The productivity equation relates two quantities. It is a ratio, an ordinary fraction. In the United States it is computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor, which divides the gross domestic product of a period by the number of hours worked in the period. “Hours worked” includes those of proprietors, unpaid family members and others “engaged” in any business.

Like all simple fractions, this one can be increased in the two ways we learned in grade school: by increasing the numerator (2/3 is greater than 1/3), or by decreasing the denominator (1/2 is also greater than 1/3)[1]. Given this property of fractions, a moment’s reflection will satisfy you that the productivity index is constitutionally incapable of providing an unequivocal answer to any question you may reasonably want to ask. It tells nothing of the size or nature of the domestic product, and nothing of the size, composition or compensation of the labor force.

The index goes up when production fails, provided “hours worked” falls faster; that is what the downsizing movement aims for. The other name for this result is recession, or depression. On the other hand, the index declines when production rises, provided “hours worked” rises faster. The other name for this result is nonsense. The economy is not less prosperous, nor is the nation weaker, because more people are working. (Otherwise, why are we so eager to get welfare mothers to work?)

The foregoing is obvious, and the mathematics is indefeasible. How is it, then, that so many intelligent, experienced, well-intentioned men and women –practically the entire membership of the American Economic Association, not to mention the with-it managements of our corporations great and small – are bemused by the productivity delusion? Psychology aside, I can make a stab at explanation.

Let’s begin with a quotation from a back issue of the Times: “A worker who produces 100 widgets an hour is clearly more productive than a worker who produces only 50 widgets an hour.” That is certainly true. And generalizing the observation, a nation of 100-widget-an-hour workers should be twice as prosperous as a nation of equal size composed of 50-widget-an-hour workers. True again – with one proviso, namely that both nations have full employment[2]. Should the first nation have only a third of its workers employed, while the second has full employment, the second will produce 50 per cent more widgets than the first and therefore will be more prosperous.

The assumption of full employment is one that economists are so comfortable with that they make it routinely, without thinking about it. Indeed, classical economics was based on this assumption, and so is neoclassical, or the economics currently practiced by most of the profession.

The beauty of full employment is that if you have it, almost anything you try will work. David Ricardo thought that England should stop making wine and concentrate on wool cloth, that Portugal should do the opposite, and that the two countries should exchange surpluses. The English vintners would become weavers, and so on. Given some rather special assumptions, this was a dandy idea in 1817 (and today it underlies the North American Free Trade Agreement). A better idea, because the British Isles were plagued by roving bands of homeless unemployed, would have been to employ the unemployed as vintners (or brewers or barley-water bottlers) and let the Portuguese keep their port, along with the wool they were perfectly capable of weaving.

If you have full employment, you can (and should) invest almost without limit to upgrade your product and upgrade the workers and capital plant that produce it. If you have millions of men and women who are unemployed or underemployed, you need to increase the number of hours worked. It doesn’t make much sense for the nation to train these people for jobs in industries that don’t exist, or that we can only imagine, to satisfy the presumed demands of a hypothetical global economy.

The new global economy is a hot ticket today. In the sense that we have one, however, there has almost always been one. Archaeologists now claim that the fabled Silk Route is two or three millennia older than Marco Polo thought. But the economic impact of the route was slight in prehistoric times, and at present the economic impact on us of Bombay and Cairo and Mexico City does not extend much beyond our corporations exploiting their labor in order to undercut our wage rates.

Unemployment is our problem. Adding up those who are officially called unemployed, those too discouraged to look for work, those too turned-off to think of working, and those able to find only occasional part-time work, recent testimony before a Congressional committee reached the appalling total of 17.3 million men and women. If we followed Mexican practice and counted as employed everyone who as much as cadged a tip for opening a car door last week, our unemployment total would be as low as the 2 per cent Mexico reports. Or if we followed mainstream economic practice and did not count at all the “naturally” unemployed, we could squinch our eyes shut and pretend that the problem didn’t exist (see “Are You Naturally Unemployed?” NL, August 10-24, 1992).

It exists, nevertheless. It really and truly exists, and as long as our best brains are trying desperately to reduce “hours worked,” it will not go away. Clintonomics may cauterize a few hundred malignant polyps at the top of our income distribution, and that will be all to the good. It may find suitable work for a few thousand middle managers rendered redundant by corporate or governmental downsizing, and that will be to the good. But unemployment will not be substantially reduced (except by the withdrawal of people from the official labor force), aggregate consumption will not be substantially increased, and whatever brave new hi-tech industries are created will stagnate for lack of consumers, here or abroad, able to buy their products.

These dismal outcomes will no doubt be exacerbated by the eagerness of Congress, whipped to a frenzy by Citizen Ross Perot, to cut government expenditures, and by the complementary unwillingness to fund the President’s already inadequate stimulus program. But all that aside, a mad drive for “productivity” in the face of long-lasting unemployment is fully sufficient to undo Clintonomics.

I hope I’m wrong, for I joined in the grateful cheering during the State of the Union address.

The New Leader

[1] Ed: Reminds me of seeing a colleague trying to explain some numerical analysis in a peer review session, a Friday Afternoon Seminar, and failing. Finally our founder stood up and said, “Well, that’s the trouble with ratios… They have a numerator and a denominator.”  He then walked off…

[2] Ed: Loyal readers will recall that the author does not believe in NAIRU, the natural rate of unemployment.

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 1, 1993

1993-1-1 Clinton's Supply Side title

THE LITTLE ROCK “economic summit was one of the most moving and inspiring and uplifting events in recent public life.  Earnest men and women dedicated to serving their fellows, some of them obscure, were able to explain their goals and difficulties to a President-elect who plainly shared their goals and had a sympathetic understanding of their difficulties.  Nothing like this has occurred before in our history.  Few of our Presidents would have been capable of it.  (Face to face with an ordinary citizen during the campaign, President Bush was puzzled.  “I don’t get your question,” he said.)

At the same time, and from the point of view of this column, the economic summit was one of the most depressing and disheartening – and dismal – events in recent public life.  There was remarkable agreement among the business executives, bankers and economists present.  I wasn’t able to watch the complete proceedings, but while I watched I heard only two bankers and three economists interpose objections to the mainstream that was rushing by.  To be sure, there were ripples in the mainstream – quibbles about details – yet the fundamental message was clear.

In fact, if you closed your eyes, there were times you could easily have imagined you were listening in on a planning session of Ronald Reagan’s early advisors, or perhaps a meeting of the Business Roundtable. One after another, the bankers wailed about regulation and boasted cheerily of what they could do if government could be gotten off their backs. One after another, the business executives and economists hailed the glories of investment (especially in the interest of “productivity”) and excoriated the seductions of consumption.  With a few exceptions, all the business and economic people fretted over the perceived necessity to stimulate the economy and the corresponding horror of failing to reduce the deficit.  Saving was soberly praised, and a word or two was said in favor of reduced capital gains taxes.

It was, as I say, a dismal performance.  For it was the supply side all over again.  The words “supply side” could not be read on anyone’s lips; no one traced a laughable curve on a cocktail napkin; and the ideas were restated less breathlessly than Jack Kemp does.  Nevertheless, it was the same old story.  A few spoke scornfully of trickle-down economics, and several spoke approvingly of the middle class.  I imagine most of the speakers would be shocked to be called supply-siders.  They should listen to the tapes.  The rhetoric was different, but the theory was substantially the same.

So where is the change that Candidate Clinton promised us so tirelessly?  Well, unpaid compassionate leave will be available to corporate employees; there will be less overt or covert endorsement of racial, sexual and ethnic cleansing; in close calls, the decision will usually go to the otherwise disadvantaged; the environment will not be a dirty word; family planning will again be a virtue; and something will be done about medical insurance.  In issues like these (except, perhaps, for the last named[1]), we can expect common sense and common decency to prevail. Common sense and common decency are no small things; we have lived without them far too long.  Their recovery will make the Clinton Presidency worthy of being remembered.  But I fear that the economic rebirth we long for will continue to elude us.

The rebirth will be aborted because the new supply-siders have, so to say, a monetarist side.  Speaker after speaker warned against over stimulating the economy.  It was explained that, whether by stepping up spending or reducing taxes, stimulation would increase the deficit, which would scare the “market” into increasing long-term rates, which would spur short-term rates, which would renew or deepen the recession.

Either way the deficit had to be reduced; and any way the deficit was reduced, the economy could not be stimulated.  That’s a dilemma for you. The proposed solution was twofold: First, the economy should be stimulated, but cautiously.  Second, a long-term, foolproof deficit-reducing program should be enacted to convince the market that the deficit is on the road to reduction; so renewed inflation will not be a danger, and interest rates need not be raised.

Let’s look at the stimulation, to be produced by expanded public works (I don’t believe in the second part of the solution any more than I did in Gramm-Rudman.) The largest sum I heard mentioned was $50 billion, with most of it going to state and local governments to restore services and repair infrastructure neglected under Reagan-Bush.

I can’t say that’s a bad idea because a little over a year ago in this space (“Taxing our Credulity,” NL, December 2-16, 1991) I wrote, “If Federal grants to state and local governments were restored merely to the same proportion of Federal expenditures as in 1980, a sum of $63.1 billion would be available to break the back of the recession.”  You will note that I proposed spending at least 26 per cent more than did the most spendthrift speaker at Little Rock.  Even so, I would not have been satisfied, as I made clear in subsequent columns, for $63.1 billion may seem like a lot of money, but it is only about 1 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).

As our economy is now organized, wages and salaries are about 80 per cent of GDP.  The median income for full-year male workers over 15 years old is about $30,000; the corresponding figure for females is about $20,000.  Beneficiaries of an economy-stimulating program might be paid less than the median – say, $20,000 as the average for both sexes.  And of course much of the stimulus would go to people who are employed.  Putting all these guesstimates together, I conclude that a $50 billion stimulus would directly create about 2 million jobs, while $63.1 billion would directly create about 2.5 million jobs.  Factoring in the “multiplier,” these totals might double, although not at once.

That’s not bad – provided you’re not one of the 6 or 7 million who would still be unemployed.  Please read and reread the previous sentence until its meaning in human suffering starts to become real to you.  I fear that it is not real to most mainstream economists, especially those who believe in the “natural rate of unemployment.” (See “Are You Naturally Unemployed?”  NL, August 10-24, 1992.[2])

A couple of the Little Rock economists pointed out – as I have done here many times (thus showing how obvious the point is) – that the debt and deficit ratios to our gross national product (GNP) were about twice as high in 1947 as they are at present, yet we proceeded to save Europe with the Marshall Plan and enjoyed a quarter-century that never saw the unemployment rate come close to what it is today.  The interest rate also was lower than today’s in every year except 1968, ’69 and ’70, and the inflation rate was lower in every year except 1948, ’51 and ’70.  One of the mainstreamers o9bserved that the postwar prosperity was driven by the demand for consumer goods pent up during World War II.  He did not seem impressed by the counter-observation that a lot of demand for consumer goods would be released now if the unemployed had jobs.

A CURIOUS FACT about the conference was the virtual absence of any reference to the Federal Reserve Board.  It was almost a case of the dog that didn’t bark.  There was a good deal of talk about the interest rate, but I heard only two participants refer to the agency that sets it.  One of the references suggested that things would change when we got “our” Board (unhappily, not an immediate possibility).

The other reference was a brief but remarkably comprehensive paper by a former governor of the Board.  He made two main points:  First, the long-term rate remains high because the Board keeps hinting the short-term rate will be pushed up to meet it (although there is plenty of room for the short rate to come down further). Second, the long-term market is effectively merely the market for 30-year Treasury bonds.  If there were no 30-year Treasuries, there would be scarcely a long market at all.  The Treasury raises only about 7.5 per cent of its funds long term and would save money if it gave them up.  Why not do so?  I regret to report that Secretary of the Treasury-designate Lloyd Bentsen did not respond, nor did President-elect Clinton.

Taking one thing with another, my sorrowful conclusion is that the Clinton economy is not going to be sensationally better than the Bush economy.  The National Bureau of Economic Research (not an “official” body, regardless of what the New York Times says) thinks you can have a recovery with both wages and profits falling and 10 million unemployed.  The awesomeness of this organization and the power of the Federal Reserve Board practically guarantee that the economy will get only a minimal stimulus, and that for only a minimal length of time.

Practitioners of economic science have dismally short memories.  In 1937 the GNP jumped up 7 per cent, where-upon the New Deal rushed to mollify Wall Street by cutting relief programs.  The budget deficit, which had reached the vertiginous height of $3.1 billion in 1936, was converted to a surplus (yes, surplus) of $300 million in 1937.  The result was a sharp recession within the Depression.  I fear that we’re getting ready to do it all again, and with far less excuse.

But one sound proposal, calling for full funding of Head Start, was generally endorsed at the economic summit.  Some of the economists saw Head Start as an “investment” in future productivity.  Their supply-side bias blinded them to its certain contribution to economic recovery.  Nonetheless, most of the money – and it will not be a trivial amount – that goes into Head Start will immediately go out to teachers’ or leaders’ salaries, to snacks and lunches, to consumable supplies like finger paint and soap, and to low-tech and expendable furniture and decorations.  At the end of a year there will be little or nothing tangible to show for these expenditures.  In the eye of an accountant the whole thing will seem like consumption of the most profligate sort.

Yet such profligate consumption (if it actually happens) will do more to stimulate the economy this year, and every year of the program’s existence, than the schemes to restore the investment tax credit, to rehabilitate IRA’s, and to cut taxes for the middle class.  All of those are bum Reaganesque ideas that we have already tried and found wanting.

The Clinton-Gore book title had it right:  We should be Putting People First.

The New Leader

[1] True enough, no action until the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare

Ed: [2] We do not have a copy of this.  If you have one, PDF or in print, please share

By George P. Brockway, originally published November 2, 1992

1992-11-2 The Illogic of Leanness and Meanness Title

1992-11-2 JK Galbraith                EDITORIALWRITERS and speech makers are fond of the expression “lean and mean” (or, sometimes, “mean and lean”). I suspect it is the rhyme that appeals to them. They can’t possibly be allowing themselves to think about what happens to people who work (or used to work) for lean and mean corporations. They can’t possibly give a satisfactory answer to the question John Kenneth Galbraith asks in Affluent Society: “Why should life be intolerable to make things of little urgency?”

Nor can they possibly be wondering whether lean and mean corporations make this a better world to live in, even for their customers and their stockholders. St. Augustine wrote: “Every disorder of the soul is its own punishment,” and meanness is certainly a disorder of the soul.

Yes, I know: We are told we will have to be lean and mean to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. Some commentators say that the global economy and the competition are already here.  President Bush inclines to this view; President-elect Clinton inclines to this view; and I suspect that Citizen Perot had something similar in mind. At any rate, he had a lean and hungry look.

Fifty years ago another self-made man, Wendell L. Willkie, had a vision of One World in which we would all help each other. Willkie was a lawyer and CEO of a giant utility holding company before he became the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate (Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior, called him the “barefoot boy from Wall Street”); he was no starry starry-eyed innocent. Yet his touchstone was cooperation, not competition. The world seems to be different now, and not as nice. What happened?

It is, I think, a case of Samuel Johnson being right again: “Hell is paved with good intentions.” The economic situation we find ourselves in is mean enough to have at least some of the attributes of hell, and it is paved in part with free trade, a theory whose intentions were the best in the world. I say “were” because I’m not so sure they’re all so good today.

Practically every economist is in favor of free trade, and the fraternity has been joined by a broad range of right-thinking, public-service citizens groups, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the League of Women Voters. The argument for free trade is simple and strong: All of us are consumers, and therefore benefit from cheap consumption goods. Tariffs, subsidies and the like increase the costs of consumption goods, and therefore are bad. A less materialistic reason for open international trade is that it is said to make for peace, although perhaps not in the Middle East.

The foregoing arguments, including Willkie’s, may be classified as general or ideological. There are also technical arguments in support of free trade – for example, the theory that cheap imports are both anti-inflationary in themselves and anti-inflationary in their competitive pressure on domestic prices. This notion was a favorite of former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker. The most famous technical argument is David Ricardo‘s so-called law of comparative advantage. Unhappily, there isn’t sufficient space here to discuss this “law,” except to say that it consists mostly of exceptions[1].

For the moment I merely want to register the point that each of the arguments, the ideological and the technical, depends – as does standard economics generally – on three assumptions: that full employment actually obtains here and now, that chronological time does not matter, and that all public questions are, au fond, economic questions (or, as Marx had it, that the state will wither away and need not be taken seriously).

Free trade as an ideal has had a long run on the American political stage, starting at least as early as the Boston Tea Party. What has happened recently is not inconsequential. Even as late as 1950, imports were less than 5 per cent of our GNP (exservices): currently they are running at about 16 per cent. Until 1977, American exports generally exceeded imports; I don’t have to tell you that the situation is different now. Nor do I have to read you a list of American industries that have been decimated by foreign competition. Those who say that the global economy is upon us are not far wrong. I am persuaded, however, that what they propose to do about it is indeed far wrong.

Essentially, they make two proposals. The first is the lean and mean thing, to which I will return. The second involves empanelling a committee of government officials, bankers, businessmen, economists, engineers, scientists, and the obligatory representatives of the general public (but not including Ralph Nader) to recommend research and development projects to the government, and then to pass judgment on the results of the research and propose ways of implementing the development of approved ideas. The government’s role would be crucial, because of the antitrust laws and because the research is thought likely to cost more than any corporation, regardless of its size, could afford. In addition, it is observed that the largest corporations tend to devote less and less money to research.

The scheme has both practical and theoretical flaws. The chief practical flaw is that whatever good ideas the committee might come up with would be immediately available worldwide. Just as the American television set industry quickly slipped into the Pacific sunset, so would the new wonder industries.

It is inconceivable, for instance, that giant American corporations would be excluded from the marvelous new industries thought up by the committee. Our giant corporations, however, are not really American; they are multinational. They are motivated by the self-interest of the stockholders (in the conventional theory) or of the managers (in Galbraith’s view); in either case, their devotion is neither to the nation nor to the nation’s workers.

Consequently, upon learning of the miraculous new product along with everybody else, if it is truly miraculous, the responsibility of these corporations to their stockholders or to themselves would require them to start producing it in the least expensive way. And where would they do that? Wherever in the world they found the most stimulating subsidies, the most alluring tax rates and the cheapest labor.

Wherever in the world that might be, it would not be in the United States of America, for the inescapable reason that, at least so far, the American standard of living is higher than that of any other first-rank country. The cheapest labor will not be found here unless we destroy ourselves. On the MacNeill Lehrer Newshour a few months ago, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills seemed to believe the Mexican poverty rate was only about 11 per cent (ours was 13.5 per cent two years ago and has undoubtedly risen since). She must have been thinking of some Mexico other than the one I’ve visited.

A MINOR practical flaw in the committee scheme is inherent in the very idea of creating such a group. Schumpeter counted the mature corporation’s addiction to committee decisions a prime reason for decline, and we all know the absurdity that would result if a committee tried to design an animal. Perhaps more important, we know from experience that a committee is quickly co-opted by those with the liveliest immediate interest in the outcome of its deliberations.

In the proposed body the industry and banking representatives may not be the smartest or the best informed, but they surely will have their minds concentrated on the fate of their sector of the economy, and they will certainly wield the direct and indirect power that comes with enormous wealth. In Japan, captains of industry respect the authority of even minor bureaucrats; in the United States, money talks.

Beyond this, the committee approach has a serious theoretical flaw in that it contradicts the very reasons for its formulation. These, it should be kept in mind, are (1) the decline of American industry because of foreign competition, and (2) the presumed impossibility or unacceptability of self-protection in any form.

The conventional charge against self protection is that it interferes with and distorts the natural course of trade, thus making for inefficient if not altogether wasteful use of resources. Publicists reinforce the charge with the cliché that a man knows better what to do with his money than does some bureaucrat in Washington. Yet if the charge and the cliché were valid, there would be nothing to be done about the decline of American industry. It would be natural and inexorable. Further, it would assure the “efficient” use of resources and be a necessary contribution to the wealth and happiness of mankind. Some people would no doubt be hurt by it, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

On the premises, there is no more place for a reindustrializing committee than there is for self-protection. If the committee wouldn’t interfere with the natural marketplace, what would it do? Its whole purpose is to interfere in a large and comprehensive way. The logic of the scheme is absurd. Major premise: American industry is being ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: A committee should be empaneled to interfere with the free market. What kind of logic is that?

The lean-and-mean logic is similar. Major premise: The American standard of living will be ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: We should make corporations lean by firing people, make them mean by working the surviving employees harder for less pay, and thereby make ourselves miserable without help from anyone else.

I find it odd that standard economics, based as it is on self-interest, should find self-protection invariably reprehensible.

The New Leader

[1] This link includes references to the Law of Comparative Advantage in other Dismal Science articles

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