NDN Blog

Broadband and American Jobs

With the FCC preparing to issue new rules and policies to promote universal broadband access, Washington’s hive of think tanks and foundations (and lobbying shops that masquerade as one or the other) have issued a flurry of new studies on broadband’s impact on American jobs. It’s a marriage of two genuinely vital matters: Ensuring that every American has access to the wired world that increasingly permeates most people’s economic and social opportunities; and finding ways to restart job creation across the economy. Perhaps most important for the FCC’s deliberations, the new studies point to the different jobs impact of the network’s two principal parts, the companies that build the broadband infrastructure and those that provide its content.

In the most rigorous new study, Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution and Hal Singer, a consultant, calculate the new jobs that arise directly from the tens of billions of dollars in new investments undertaken by broadband providers, laying cable, fiber and DSL lines, putting in place new connections, and building out wireless and satellite-based broadband networks. From 2003 to 2009, these direct investments created some 434,000 jobs; and over the next five years, the same process should produce more than 500,000 more jobs. And as we will see, these effects dwarf the job gains linked to the companies providing the content.

But the power of a market-based economy lies in the ways that a basic infrastructure such as broadband stimulates additional economic activity, much as highways and railroads once did. Building out these networks creates a platform for the development of thousands of new applications, and the combination creates new demand for the computers, software and other IT equipment needed to use the network and its applications.

Consider the iPhone cited in another new study from the Democratic Leadership Council. Without the broadband network, the iPhone would be just another cell phone. With it, Apple sold 43 million units in three years, its’ users downloaded 1 billion applications, and other mobile device makers scrambled to develop competing devices. And the people newly employed to produce these computers, software and other equipment earn wages and salaries, which enable them to buy more goods and services that yet more workers have to produce. Altogether, economists figure that these dynamics created another 430,000 jobs per-year from 2003 to 2009.

But there’s a big catch. As millions learned when the New Economy bubble burst in 2001, new technologies create enduring wealth and jobs only if they enable us to either do something entirely new or do more efficiently something we already do. Otherwise, the technology mainly moves around demand and the jobs linked to it: When we get our news from the Internet, it creates jobs on those sites while costing jobs at newspapers and magazines. This tradeoff happens especially when the economy is growing smartly and different companies and sectors have to compete for investment capital. So, we have to recognize that the cheering investment and job numbers for broadband don’t usually take account of the jobs that weren’t created when investment in other areas slowed — and that’s why economics is called the dismal science.

This caveat, however, also points to broadband’s real potential to create new efficiencies and new economic value — and the jobs that go with those gains. First, there are “spillovers” to other parts of the economy. So, as the use of broadband and its applications expand, other sectors from hotels and manufacturing to retail trade and educational services have to keep pace; and that requires that they increase their own investments in computers, software and so on. Those investments create new jobs not only to produce those technologies, but also to operate them once in place. One recent study estimated that for every one-percentage point increase in broadband penetration, several hundred thousand more new jobs are produced — and broadband access has been rising by several percentage-points per-year.

Combinations of broadband and advanced applications also can generate entirely new savings which allow people to spend more on other things, and so create additional jobs not counted in all of those studies. We see this happening in telecommuting, which saves transportation and other energy costs, as well as in telemedicine, which can not only reduce transportation and energy costs but also make the practice of certain areas of medicine more efficient and more effective. And if telemedicine saves people’s lives or reduces how long they’re sick, the economy gains all of the productivity which otherwise would have been lost.

There is one more catch in all of this good news: These various gains are not distributed evenly across the economy or equally across the society. It’s not just a matter of much of the gains going to workers in industries that develop and sell the fiber, cable, satellites, computers, cell phones, software, and so on. Beyond that, a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that communities with new access to broadband — and parts of communities — experienced average job growth 6.4 percent greater than before they had broadband. To begin, much of those gains will be captured by workers with sound IT-related skills. Furthermore, this suggests that communities without such expanded access — and parts of cities where most residents remain not wired — will lag behind even more than before.

And within the broadband universe, the direct job gains associated with higher investments are also concentrated. Dividing that universe into the broadband providers such as AT&T or Verizon and the content providers such as Google and eBay, studies and SEC data show that, first, broadband providers invest three-to-four times as much as the content providers. Moreover, studies also find that each dollar invested by broadband providers creates about twice as many jobs as each dollar invested by the content providers.

These studies suggest several takeaways for the FCC. First, the FCC’s goal is the right one: Universal access to broadband is critical to promoting more job opportunities and economic growth across the economy. Second, the central element for job creation here are the investments required to ensure universal access — not only now, but also as broadband technologies continue to advance. The FCC should promote these investments in every way it can. At a minimum, the Commission should be extremely cautious about policy changes which could weaken the incentives for those investments — i.e., reduce their returns — or raise the price for people to access broadband.

The Hidden Tax When You "Charge It"

American consumers gained a few consumer protections this week from the credit card companies, but it’s only the beginning of the reforms we need.  One very large issue remains untouched and unmentioned: The big credit and debit card networks, along with the large banks that issue most cards, impose “interchange” or “swipe” fees on merchants of 1.5 percent to 3.25 percent of every credit or debit card transaction.  This matters to all of us, because most of these fees are passed along in higher prices on every purchase like a hidden sales tax, whether or not the purchase involves a credit card. To be sure, we all derive economic benefits from using credit and debit cards.  But the fees attached to every card purchase are five-to-six times the actual costs of processing the transaction; and the card networks and card-issuing banks manage to insulate themselves from competitive pressures that might bring down those fees.

These findings come from an analysis that my advisory group, Sonecon, just completed for Consumers for Competitive Choice. The study found that in 2008, merchants paid the credit card networks and the banks issuing the cards some $48 billion in swipes fees. Of that, less than 20 percent went to cover the actual costs of processing the credit and debit card charges and covering fraudulent charges, while the remaining 80 percent went for a variety of forms of gravy. Only the absence of real market forces enables the card networks and banks to maintain these fees at levels that so far exceed their actual costs.

And all of us bear a burden from these excessive fees. We calculated that merchants pass along some 56 percent of these fees in higher prices. And since the credit card networks bar merchants from charging their customers a lower price if they don’t charge it, the high swipe fees raise the price of everything bought by anybody – from food, clothing and computers, to gasoline, restaurant meals, and furnishings. In all, the excess swipe fees cost an average American household $230 per-year. And if these fees were limited to the actual processing costs, plus a normal profit, the lower prices for everything would expand real demand enough to create nearly 250,000 more jobs.   

All of this comes about because our credit-card system operates along the lines of two interlocking cartels, allowing limited competition among their members while insulating themselves from outside price pressures. Three card companies – Visa, MasterCard, and American Express – account for more than 95 percent of all consumer charges and two-thirds of all business card transactions. That means that merchants have no choice but to accept most or all of these cards, which in turns means that consumers and businesses that want to charge it have no choice but to do so with these cards.  

Furthermore, most of these charges occur on cards issued by four financial institutions, with 70 percent of all charges being placed on cards issued by JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and American Express. The four big banks issue a bewildering variety of cards with various rewards and annual fees, each attached to a different swipe fee for merchants when they’re used. Between Visa and MasterCard alone, merchants are subject to more than 300 separate swipe rates and fees. But under the rules set down by the card networks and banks, a merchant that accepts one Visa or MasterCard has to accept all of them, regardless of the swipe fees imposed for charges on particular cards.  

These arrangements tend to push up the swipe fees. Most of the fees go to the banks. So, Visa, MasterCard and American Express compete for bank business by promising higher swipe fees; while the banks compete for new subscribers by offering increasingly generous rewards programs financed by the higher fees. Nor do the cartel-like rules imposed by the card networks and banks allow downward pressures on those fees: Merchants cannot choose which cards to accept based on the fees they pay, which might put pressures on high-fee cards; nor can they charge less for those paying by cash or using low-fee cards, which would allow consumers and businesses to put the pressure on the high-fee cards.  

These arrangements are also baldly unfair. More than half of all lower and moderate-income Americans don’t carry credit or debit cards at all, and relatively few of those who do have cards qualify for the rewards programs. Yet, they’re forced to pay higher prices for everything they purchase, in order to help finance the card-rewards programs offered to more affluent people and the outsize profits claimed by the card networks and card-issuing banks.  

It’s time to fundamentally change this part of the system. Australia used to have swipe fees averaging just 0.95 percent. They adopted reforms limiting the fees to the actual processing costs, plus reasonable profit, and they fell to an average of 0.50 percent. Through it all, Australia has retained a healthy credit and debit card system. As the Senate Banking Committee work to forge a final compromise on financial regulation, it should follow Australia’s example and grant the Federal Reserve or the Federal Trade Commission new authority to set reasonable rules for swipe fees.

The Perverse Politics Surrounding Economic Policymaking

The most remarkable aspect of our current economic predicament is the politics surrounding it, which are now as dysfunctional as Bear Stearns or AIG just before they tanked in 2008.  The latest illustration is this week’s partisan take on the effectiveness of last year’s stimulus, one year after its passage.  While every cable TV loudmouth with economic opinions calls himself or herself an economist, there was never a debate among real economists over whether an $800 billion, two-year package of spending and tax cuts would help spur growth and employment.  Whether one thinks that economic relationships were better described by John Maynard Keynes and Robert Solow, or by Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, the conclusion is that it would.  And one year later, the data show that it did: Growth is back, albeit still weak; and the rapid ascent of joblessness slowed sharply, not from a spurt of new job creation but because many fewer people lost their jobs.

The short-term benefits of the stimulus have been willingly acknowledged by conservative economists from Harvard’s Martin Feldstein (Reagan’s CEA chair) to AEI’s Kevin Hassett (McCain’s economic tutor).   That makes the current carping by GOP leaders either mindlessly uninformed or willfully misleading.  

To be sure, economists have serious differences about other aspects of stimulus, principally whether their long-term costs outweigh the short-term benefits.  Ironically, here’s where a truly perverse streak in our current economic debate really kicks in.  While a neoclassical economist would expect smaller short-term benefits and larger long-term costs from stimulus than a Keynesian colleague, both would agree that the prospect that government borrowing will continue to expand after a real recovery takes hold calls for long-term deficit reduction. So, how do we explain GOP opposition to the President’s call for pay-as-you-go budget rules and a bipartisan deficit reduction commission?  In this case, the ideological blinders which dictate no tax increases even to control runaway deficits reinforce the Republican political calculus that any achievement by the President could diminish the public’s anger at incumbents.  The result is the GOP’s perverse and dysfunctional “just say no” approach to the economic debate.  

With public concerns over long-term deficits heating up – especially among the Tea Party followers currently being courted furiously by Republican leaders -- the GOP probably won’t be able to maintain its blanket opposition to any serious move to reduce those long-term deficits.  But in other areas of economic policy where the politics are less clear-cut, most notably financial reform, their across-the-board opposition will be easier to maintain.  Moreover, the economics of financial reform are also less clear-cut, producing diverse views among Democrats as well.  With most Republicans unwilling to even consider a bipartisan meeting of the minds over these reforms, the structural problems that led to the market meltdown of 2008-2009 will remain unaffected.  In the wake of a financial crisis that very nearly tipped the world into a global depression, the politics that produce this outcome are unconscionable.

The final irony may come if the GOP political strategy succeeds.  If Republicans pick up large numbers of seats in Congress come November – and they might just take over the Senate -- their enhanced numbers and especially the new members may force them to show they can produce some real progress.  And those pressures, in turn, will require compromises with the President and congressional Democrats that seem utterly out-of-reach today.

What Europe’s New Debt Crisis Means for Americans

The dislocations from the worldwide, economic meltdown aren’t over by a long shot.  Nearly two years after Bear Stearns’ collapse, the crisis continues to generate a stream of nasty twists and turns.  Most of these developments have global dimensions, almost all of them are highly complex and only partly understood, and many require rapid responses that have to be carried out under relentless public and partisan scrutiny.   This constitutes the largest policymaking challenge since the dawn of the postwar era in foreign policy and international economic arrangements.  

The most recent, nasty twist is the specter of a sovereign debt default in Greece.  Technically, it means that Greece is running such large deficits, relative to its economy and private savings, that it may find itself unable to finance them while also servicing and refinancing its existing debt.   In practice, financial speculators betting on default are now intensifying pressure on Greece.   Countries default on their debts regularly – it’s virtually a national habit for places like Argentina – but the economic crisis makes this situation different.  First, the government bonds of Greece and countries like it are held mainly by Western financial institutions such as Citigroup and Deutsche Bank.  Another round of big losses for them will mean more delays before normal credit flows to businesses resume, which in turn will mean slower growth, and longer and higher unemployment, for Europe and the United States.  

The second ugly twist is that Greece is not alone.  For months, international finance experts have worried about the sovereign debt status of not only places such as Portugal, Ukraine and Lithuania, but also Ireland, Spain and Italy.  These concerns will heighten if Greece’s debt goes down, which in turn could make additional defaults more likely.   And if the debt of a major country fails, we could find ourselves back to the financial conditions of Autumn 2008, but this time with much less fiscal and monetary capacity to address them.  

While even President Obama couldn’t explain a U.S. taxpayer bailout for Greece, its implications for the European Union have convinced Germany to let the Union provide a safety net.   While Greece represents just 3 percent of the EU’s total GDP, Greece is part of the Euro zone.  So a Greek debt default would trigger a crisis for the Euro – and a Euro crisis in turn would drive up interest rates across Europe and choke off their recovery.   The EU bailout of Greece will have its own costs, however, since it demonstrates that the EU cannot enforce its own, basic rules on deficits and national debts.  That lesson will also weaken the Euro -- which means a stronger dollar later this year and weaker U.S. exports to help pull our own economy out of its ditch.  And if another Eurozone nation faces default in coming months, especially a large economy like Spain or Italy, the Union won’t have the means to do much to stop it. 

America, of course, has its own serious problems dealing with deficits and national debt.   The GOP “party of small government” won’t agree to President Obama’s proposal to create a bipartisan commission to tackle the long-term problem, something Republican presidents and leaders had supported until Obama won the White House.  GOP congressional leaders also have said no to pay-as-you-go rules to limit future deficits – rules they also liked in the 1990s – because paying for future tax cuts could mean fewer of them.   In places beyond Washington, where economic sanity still rules, contemplating tax cuts in the face of trillion dollar deficits would make no sense.  And even Ronald Reagan, the fiscal godfather of today’s GOP leaders, agreed to large tax hikes on business (1982), payrolls (1983) and energy (1984) when he faced unmanageable deficits.   Yet, even George W. Bush’s catastrophic example of what happens when a serious recession collides with large underlying deficits hasn't convinced them to reexamine their talking points on tax cuts. 

That’s one reason why the rating service Moody’s acknowledged last week that it might downgrade America’s debtor status from AAA to AA.   A downgrade remains pretty remote -- unless the economy swoons again, coming this time on top of a $1.4 trillion deficit instead of a $400 billion one.   And debt defaults by Greece and another country could certainly trigger such a swoon.  As it is, Greece’s problems have produced billions of dollars in speculative bets on Wall Street against the Euro.  In fact, these bets follow recent and even more widespread Wall Street speculation against the dollar, winning bets which produced the record profits and large bonuses reported recently by Goldman Sachs and others.  

All of this confirms with disheartening certainty that the forces which created the global economic crisis are still with us, and most of the policy challenges remain unmet. 

Cutting Payroll Taxes to Create Jobs

Looking for ways to jumpstart job creation, the White House and Senate heavyweight Chuck Schumer have both come around to the same idea, cutting the payroll taxes that employers pay on new hires.  The economic sense of this idea is straight-forward:  If you want to induce businesses to hire people whom, under current economic conditions, they wouldn’t otherwise take on, you have to reduce their costs of doing so.   A payroll tax cut is the most direct and targeted way to reduce those costs, which is why the Congressional Budget Office found recently that it’s about the most powerful policy option available to both create new jobs and boost GDP growth.

The President and Senator Schumer have the right idea, and it should be the centerpiece of the jobs bill now making its way through Congress.   In fact, they should think about this in a larger context.  Payroll tax reform can be more than just one of the pieces of a package of job-friendly tax breaks for “small businesses,” and more than a temporary measure to deal with double-digit unemployment.  America’s job-creating power has weakened over the past decade, creating serious reasons to approach payroll tax cuts as not merely a measure to deal with our current high jobless rate, but a key part of a new economic policy.  

For decades, the cost of payroll taxes had little apparent effect on job creation in the United States, the economic area in which we have long led other large, advanced economies.  In the 1970s, when almost nothing else went right with the U.S. economy, we created more than 21 million new net jobs.  In the expansion of the 1980s, while productivity and income gains slowed, we still created more than 20 million more new jobs.  And the expansion of the 1990s added 19.5 million more.  This record of steady, strong job creation came to an abrupt end in the six-year expansion of 2002-2007, when we managed to create less than 11 million new jobs.  So, even before the economy gave back most of those job gains in the 2008-2009 recession, American businesses in this decade were creating new jobs at just about half the rate they did in the 1980s and 1990s.  

America’s vaunted job-creating machine has collided with globalization.  The problem is not simply or even mainly that American businesses have been sending jobs abroad – in fact, the foreign-based workforce of U.S. multinationals has barely grown at all since 2002.  The real issue is that globalization intensifies competition, which makes it harder for businesses to pass along any new costs in higher prices.  The good news is that these forces keep inflation low.   The bad news is that when a business’s costs do go up – most notably, for health care and energy -- and competition stops them from passing along these cost increases in higher prices, they have to cut other costs.  The costs they’ve been cutting are jobs and wages.

Since the chances of Congress passing health care or energy reforms that would contain these near-term costs are slim, it’s time for a new approach that directly reduces the costs to companies of creating new jobs.

So, Congress should cut the employers’ side of the payroll tax for new hires, covering the new employee’s first two years on the jobs.  Over that period, most workers will pick up considerable new, job-specific skills, so employers will want to keep them on when the special tax break no longer applies to them.   To prevent businesses from gaming the system, the policy also should apply only to new hires that increase both the company’s total workforce and its total payroll – safeguards already included in both the Schumer proposal and the President’s plan.  Finally, under the revived pay-as-you-go rules, Congress will have to replace the foregone revenues for Social Security, perhaps even as part of a larger tax reform effort.  

Payroll tax reform could be the leading edge of a renewed commitment by the administration to bolster jobs and wages.   At a minimum, it’s an approach to job creation that just about everyone will understand and most Americans may well appreciate, come November.  On that basis alone, a payroll tax cut should be the core of whatever Congress chooses to call its new jobs bill.

For background on Dr. Shapiro's advocacy for the payroll tax cut, please see: President Obama, Senators Advance Payroll Tax Cut to Spur Job Creation. 

The Path to More Jobs and Growth

What amounts to a small miracle for Washington happened this week: The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a new report on the effectiveness of different policy approaches for boosting growth and jobs.  The findings affirm basic economic logic – and support the policy ideas that we urged on the administration at the White House Jobs Summit and, before that, for months here.   As CBO figures it, the best way to boost employment, in jobs per-federal dollar, and the second best way to boost growth quickly, in dollars of new output per-federal dollar, is to cut the payroll taxes paid by employers who also increase their overall payrolls.  CBO calculates that this approach would be six to eight times more powerful in creating jobs than cutting personal income taxes, four times as potent as spending more on infrastructure, and twice as effective as new investment breaks for businesses or additional aid to the states. 

The reasons are obvious once you clear away the scenarios concocted by lobbyists for other approaches.  It’s virtually the only proposal that’s actually targeted directly at job creation, and it’s effective because it directly reduces a company’s cost to create new jobs.   Its’ projected power to boost GDP follows directly from its success in creating jobs, since the new workers would spend virtually everything they earn, boosting output in the goods and services they choose and the jobs required to provide those goods and services.  

CBO also found that the best way to spur growth quickly, again in new output per-federal dollar, and the second best way to boost employment, in jobs per-federal dollar, is to expand assistance to unemployed Americans.  This is as classic an exercise in Keynesianism as they come.  Jobless people can be counted on to spend everything extra they receive, boosting demand for lots of goods and services; and meeting their additional demand requires more workers, materials and goods.  It also has the virtue of directly doing something good for millions of people.  We’ve lost an astonishing 7.3 million jobs since this downturn began.  More than half of all Americans currently unemployed (counting those who’ve given up looking, in despair) have been out of work for at least a half-year.  For the rest of us, CBO found that it would boost growth and jobs, again, significantly more than infrastructure spending and many times more than income or business tax breaks. 

Alas, basic economic logic didn’t stop the Bush administration from focusing its stimulus tax policies on precisely the broad tax cuts that, as CBO now confirms, do little in a downturn for growth or jobs.  Sadly, the facts and logic also didn’t deter the current administration and Congress from giving away one-third of the 2009 stimulus package in this way, and considering more investment tax breaks as a part of a new jobs package.  

The CBO report also doesn’t mention that providing more jobless benefits and a year of payroll tax relief for employers won’t be nearly enough.  On our present path, the expansion just beginning to unfold won’t look or feel much like the 1990s, when job creation was strong and most people’s incomes rose smartly.   It’s much more likely to follow the course of the Bush expansion, when job creation was weak and most people’s incomes stagnated (or worse).    And by the way, don’t be distracted by a few months of strong economic data.  GDP growth will likely come in quite high for the fourth quarter of last year – we’ll know soon – because that’s when businesses began to replenish the inventories they’ve been drawing down since late 2007.  But inventory swings don’t translate into income gains or lasting jobs. 

The reason we’re on this path is that Washington still hasn’t done much about the problems that gave us such a disappointing expansion last time and the disastrous downturn that followed.   Even if health reform passes, it won’t include the strong medicine needed to reduce the squeeze on jobs and wages coming from employers’ skyrocketing health care costs.  There’s also precious little in the sheaf of education and workplace proposals now before Congress -- and they may not even get to them -- to expand an average worker’s access to the skills everyone will need in the next decade to operate in technology-intensive workplaces.   Nor are there any prospects left this year of passing energy reforms that could reduce our dependence on high-carbon energy imports, and consequently lessen our economic vulnerability to the swings in their international prices.  

Washington also has done so little to address the mortgage markets that brought on the broader financial crisis that home foreclosures will set new record levels again this year, creating another stumbling block for a strong expansion.   And the prospects for meaningful financial reforms to goad Wall Street into funding the American economy, instead of their latest round of high-risk security bets, seem to be nearly gone. 

After this week’s results in Massachusetts, can anyone seriously doubt that a majority of Americans are truly and finally fed up with Washington’s resistance to doing what makes economic sense? 

The World Matters: America’s Path and the Rise of the Rest

The perennial question of whether America is in decline is back.  It’s the subject of new books and the cover story of the Atlantic Monthly, where James Fallows does his usual credible job with it.   For declinists, the forces animating the current sense of national malaise about the future are everywhere, from the chronic disrepair of our infrastructure and the sad state of public education, to soaring public debt and the quagmires of our foreign wars.  On top of these dismal matters, there’s growing inequality and social polarization, and the failures of most important institutions, from the press and leading universities to, of course, Congress and Wall Street.  Fallows paints a dreary picture.  But he’s also impressed, and properly so, with American society’s flexibility and openness to new people -- from obscure origins here and immigrants from everywhere else – with new ideas, new technologies, new ways of conducting business, and new ways of living what almost everyone else in the world would call the good life.  He figures that these qualities are enough to meet any difficulty -- but for a political system that seems unable to address any serious challenge. 

Fallows is right about almost all of this, as far he goes.  Unfortunately, that’s not nearly far enough.  The analysis, along with most of what’s said in Washington these days, misses how much the context of America’s problems has gone global over the last generation.  It’s most obvious in the economic sphere, where the financial meltdown, problems creating jobs, even our soaring public debt are all intertwined with globalization.  The housing bubble, for example, drew on global dynamics driving up all asset prices.  That’s why housing bubbles appeared not just here, but around the world –and one is just getting started now in China, with housing prices in Shanghai and Beijing jumping 50 percent in the last year.  And it was global institutions drawing on global savings that drove the explosion of the financial instruments and their derivatives around this bubble.

The problem with jobs is also one that Washington policymakers can’t understand, much less solve, until they begin to view it in its true, global context.   A generation of sweeping economic reforms across most of Asia, Eastern Europe and much of Latin America, along with huge transfers of new technologies and entire business organizations from the West to everywhere else, produced tens of thousands of new businesses around the world.  For at least a decade, they’ve been competing with our own companies and workers, either directly or indirectly in their own home markets.  When competition becomes turbo-charged like this, everybody has to figure out how to cut costs – and in countries where most workers earn decent livings, like America, those cuts start with jobs and wages.  So, the answers to our jobs problem will have to be a lot more complicated than a new tax break for small businesses or ecologically-fashionable sectors.  

Everywhere we look, the problems and the opportunities that America faces involve our relationships with the rest of the world.  We will never manage a transition to a low-carbon economy with simply own ingenuity and grit – and why should we, when by definition, the climate problem and its solutions are entirely global.  Similarly, the notion that the President, Congress and the Pentagon, among themselves, can work out the “solution” to Afghanistan – as the last administration recklessly imagined it could with Iraq – is one that would be taken seriously only on Fox news.  And if, as most of us suspect, great social and economic opportunities lie in the wired world of broadband and wideband, 3G and 4G, their true potential can only be tapped and managed on a global basis.  

So, the challenges we face are not about the prospect of America’s decline at all.  They’re about the rise of the rest of the world and our capacity to understand and operate in a genuine global context. 

The World Is Watching and, Oops, There Go Our Interest Rates!

Here’s a piece of dry financial data that could herald big changes in our politics and economy:  Over the last five weeks, yields on 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds have risen nearly two-thirds of a point.   The interest rates the U.S. government pays are rising across the board, and quickly, and it’s not because the Federal Reserve is tightening credit – the economy is still too weak and vulnerable for that.  Rates are rising, because the world’s largest global investment funds are “limiting their exposure to the US economy,” as the Financial Times puts it.   These funds move trillions of dollars in and out of investments around the world, on behalf of governments like China and Saudi Arabia, financial and industrial giants like UBS and Gazprom, billionaires from scores of countries and, behind a veil of shell companies in tax havens, a few hugely wealthy and liquid dictators and criminal organizations.   These funds are sending the White House and Congress a clear message:  They think that Washington is taking on more debt than the American economy can handle.  More important, they believe that when global markets catch up with this view, they will drive up U.S. interest rates sharply, starting with Treasuries, and then moving on to loans to businesses, consumers, and, yes, homebuyers looking for mortgages. 

It’s hard to fault their logic:  In 2009, the Treasury borrowed about $1.4 trillion, or nearly 60 percent more than the $885 billion it had to borrow over Bill Clinton’s entire two terms.  It’s almost certainly true that all that borrowing last year, along with the Fed’s willingness to flood every financial institution with liquidity (free money), prevented the Great Recession from morphing into a Second Great Depression.  But these large and obvious benefits don’t nullify or negate the costs.  And what’s happening now with interest rates means that those costs may be coming home to roost sooner than anyone would have wished.  

This problem is not really a new one, and President Obama should start by reviewing how his predecessors handled it.  The combination of a deep recession, tax cuts and a new military buildup produced an explosion of new debt in the early 1980s; it happened again in the early 1990s from another bad recession and a ramp-up in military spending (remember the first Gulf War?).  The formula in both cases was essentially the same.  First, pass revenue increases that look out a few years.  It’s not part of the right-wing canon, but Reagan accepted tax increases enacted in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986.  Clinton did the same in 1993, building on what the first President Bush (the serious one) did in 1991.  And they all also had policies to slow down some spending – Reagan cut health care and slowed his own military buildup down the line; Clinton cut military spending and slowed health care several years out.  

Apart from a few chronically uninformed complainers, most analysts can agree that these changes helped produce pretty successful runs for the economy in the mid-1980s and latter-1990s.  And most economists agree that the strong growth of those years owed quite a bit to Reagan’s and Clinton’s success in reassuring the investment funds of their own day that the American economy could handle the government’s debt. 

However, just as we don’t have to accept the years of stagnation that would follow from doing nothing as world markets drive up our interest rates, it would be a terrible mistake to turn this into a deficit-cutting frenzy in 2010 and 2011.  That would almost certainly ensure another round of Great Recession.   So, President Obama’s challenge is to reassure global funds and the larger global markets that he, too, can put in place a new fiscal program that several years from now will get control of the spiraling debt.  The biggest difference is that these days, the verdict no longer comes mainly from U.S.-based funds and markets.  To the money men in China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and even Japan, Germany and France, America is no longer even a sentimental favorite.  So the new lesson that this President has to learn – and it will be a hard one, given the powerful pressures in Washington for an America-centric approach to everything -- is that this country’s prospects henceforth will usually depend, most critically, on what’s happening beyond our own borders.

Two Thoughts for President Obama on his Way to Copenhagen

With the President getting ready to go to Copenhagen, the EPA did what Congress wouldn’t: It put in place a policy that ultimately would sharply reduce carbon emissions.  The EPA finding that greenhouse gases (GHG) pose a health threat and thus trigger a process to reduce the risks through direct regulation has become the president’s “deliverable” in Copenhagen.  More important, the only forces that will ever prod Congress to take action on climate are broad public opinion and pressures from powerful groups – and that’s the real importance of the EPA finding and a series of additional rule-makings scheduled over the next year.  The finding and prospective rule-makings should bolster the public’s existing opinion that serious measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions action are required, and put the fear of God in many business executives (or more precisely, the fear of unaccountable government regulators).  And the threat that the EPA may directly regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of every company in America is a credible one, given the Supreme Court’s recent holding that the law requires that EPA come to some finding about the dangers of those emissions.  The only course left for all the powerful groups that work so hard to stop or profoundly weaken climate legislation –their most recent handiwork is evident in the effective gutting of Waxman-Markey – is to enact a serious program that would preempt EPA.  Are you listening, big coal?  And climate activists should be on the same mission, once they consider what EPA regulation could look like under the next conservative Republican president.

CopenhagenThe finding also could accelerate the search for new approaches to climate change, broadening the debate beyond the cap-and-trade model which Congress has already rejected three times and, if Kerry-Boxer ever comes to a vote, will almost certainly defeat again.  The leading alternative, of course, is a carbon-based tax with the revenues going to cut payroll or other taxes.  It’s an approach that’s worked well in Sweden and now is being considered in France, Ireland and Denmark.  Economists like it, because it doesn’t introduce additional volatility to energy prices as cap-and-trade does; and environmentalists like it, because a stable price for carbon is a prerequisite for businesses to invest large sums in developing and adopting alternative fuels and technologies.  Now, if businesses can come to dislike the prospect of direct EPA regulation with enough fervor, a new consensus could emerge around a new way to address climate change.

Speaking of Copenhagen, let’s also cut through the nonsense about the whole project foundering unless rich countries agree to pay for the climate efforts of poor countries.  Climate change is almost entirely the business of the world’s developed and large, fast-developing countries, because poor countries simply don’t have enough electricity generation, factories, capital-intensive farming, and automobiles to produce significant amounts of GHGs.  In fact, the world’s three economically-dominant places -- America, the European Union, and China -- account for 55.5 percent of all emissions.  Include twelve more nations -- Russia, India, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Iran, Mexico, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, -- and you cover 85 percent of global emissions.  Among those twelve, the only, barely plausible cases for assistance are India and Indonesia, although both are on sharply-rising growth and development paths that could soon generate the incentives and resources required to become more climate-friendly on their own.  Ensuring that the world’s 120 or so other countries, most of them small and many of them poor, share some responsibility for addressing climate change is truly a secondary issue.

It’s also clear that at this time, virtually no country seems prepared to shoulder the cost of making even its own economy truly climate friendly, much less pick up the bills to make other countries less carbon-dependent.  The best course is probably a business form of technology sharing, in which governments support the formation of joint ventures between developers in the United States, the EU and the other dozen or so large GHG emitting nations –especially China and India – to develop, produce and sell climate-friendly fuels and technologies.  Then saving the planet could end up being good business for everybody.

One Way to Create More Jobs without Increasing the Deficit

At last week’s Jobs Summit, President Obama said he’ll consider any good idea to create jobs.  I heard him say it, and I believe him.  His speech yesterday at the Brookings Institution offered some decent, standard approaches, including more infrastructure spending and tax breaks for small businesses.  The President would be well-served to cast his policy net a bit wider.  Since the Great Recession began, the economy has shed an astounding 7.3 million private-sector jobs – and based on the last two recoveries, businesses could continue to cut back their labor forces for another year or longer.  The President and Congress can create more government jobs whenever they like, for example by giving states an additional $50 billion or so targeted to jobs.  But finding the right lever to get private companies to hire more people than they would otherwise is a lot harder. 

The most direct and sensible approach is to somehow reduce the costs of hiring for companies.  The unsurprising catch is that the incentives required to get them to hire a million or more new people, whom otherwise they wouldn’t have hired, are very expensive.  So, most serious jobs proposals would either drive up our already-mammoth deficits or require a significant new tax.  

Most, but not all, because there is one approach I know of that wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything.  The foreign subsidiaries of America’s multinational companies currently hold offshore an estimated $1 trillion in past earnings, because our tax laws defer the U.S. corporate tax on those earnings until the parent companies bring them back to the U.S. parent company.  The challenge is to leverage these funds for job creation at home, by creating a strong incentive for them to bring back a share of those earnings tied to a requirement that they use the funds to finance new hires.  It’s the closest thing to “found money” that this administration and Congress will ever find. 

We actually tried this once before, in a fashion, and it worked reasonably well.  In 2004, Congress slashed the corporate tax on such “repatriated” earnings for one year, from 35 percent to 5.25 percent, and IRS data show that it increased net inflows of those earnings by $312 billion, including $252 billion by U.S. manufacturers.  The 2004 law also told companies they had to use the new funds they brought back to, among other things, finance new workers, new investment, or pay down domestic debt.  Recent surveys found $73 billion of the repatriated earnings went to create or retain jobs, $75 billion for new capital spending, and $39 billion to pay down domestic debt.   Here’s the free lunch: In the short run, the temporary program raised $34 billion in new federal revenues.  And it may not even have reduced revenues over the long-term, or not by much, since without the tax break, most U.S. multinationals keep their foreign-source earnings abroad indefinitely, or at least until they can be used to offset domestic losses for tax purposes. 

We can estimate what would happen if we tried this approach again.  A recent analysis I did with AEI’s Aparna Mathur found that such a policy could bring back $420 billion in foreign-source income now held abroad.  And if the program were targeted again in the same way as in 2004, it could mean $97 billion for new employment, or enough to create or save 2.6 million jobs over two years, as well as $101 billion for new capital spending, enough to produce long-term wage gains of 1.3 percent.  

Skeptics will claim that most companies would use their repatriated funds in other ways, such as stock buy-backs; and since money is fungible, the government couldn’t stop them.  Two academic studies built models which inferred that this happened last time; but there’s no real evidence that companies evaded the restrictions, and a recent academic survey suggests that most did follow the law.  Even if some didn’t, we can tighten the restrictions this time.  We could allow multinationals to bring back offshore earnings for one or two years and pay just 5 or 10 percent corporate tax on them here, so long as they use those funds only to create new, net jobs or increase their net investment.  That means they would have to not only hire new people, but expand their overall workforces. It might just help businesses create between 1 million and 2 million new jobs while actually reducing the deficit, which seems like the kind of new idea the President is looking for.

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