Obama Channels Clinton on the Economy, But Will it Work the Second Time?

In Kansas last week, President Obama laid out the economic brief for his reelection. Its substance plainly recalls the program Bill Clinton offered in 1992. Both plans are built around new public commitments to education, R&D and infrastructure, some fiscal restraint to finance the public investments and unleash more private investment, plus some modest redistribution of the tax burden from working families to the wealthy. This formula still strikes the right notes politically, at least for those who aren’t diehard, pre-New Deal conservatives. But economically, this mainstream approach will face much greater hurdles today.

Most of the President’s conservative critics have focused on his call for more revenues from affluent Americans, starting with a surtax on millionaires. In fact, congressional Republicans not only have rejected the surtax; they’ve also suggested that they might hold payroll tax relief hostage until Obama agrees to make the Bush upper-end tax cuts permanent. It’s a bluff, and not a very good one: The GOP will stop the surtax on the rich, but they cannot be seen at the same time as raising taxes on everyone else. Whether or not Bush’s largesse for upper-income Americans survives will turn on who is inaugurated in January 2013.

This tax debate may pack a good political punch for Obama; but in the end, it doesn’t have much economic significance. Yes, a higher marginal rate, in itself, would have negative effects. But in the real world, a higher rate never operates by itself. The additional revenues may help bring down interest rates by reducing deficits and so spur business investment, as they did under Clinton. Or the same revenues could help finance public investments that make businesses more efficient and productive. And the truth is, the adverse effects of a higher tax rate on the wealthy, by itself, fall somewhere between quite weak and very weak. What else can an economist infer from strong growth in the 1950s when the top rate exceeded 90 percent, quickening growth in the 1990s after Clinton hiked the top rate, and more tepid growth after Bush cut the top rate?

The harder and more important issue is whether the combination of more public investment and smaller deficits, which worked so well for Clinton, will make much difference today. Like Clinton in 1992, Obama last week called for more federal dollars in the three specific areas that can boost productivity and growth in every industry, and which businesses tend to shortchange. This covers worker education and training, basic research and development, and transportation infrastructure. The theory, confirmed by the boom of the latter 1990s, is that these factors help make businesses more efficient and their workers more productive. Together, those gains translate into higher incomes and stronger business investment, especially if businesses don’t have to compete with Washington for capital to invest. And all of that should produce stronger growth, more jobs, and a much-sought-for virtuous circle.

The catch lies in jobs and wages. If the public investments allow businesses to become more efficient and productive, but those investments do not lead to higher incomes and more jobs, the only result will be higher profit margins. The whole virtuous circle will slow down or even stall out, much like what happened once the 2009 stimulus ran its course. In the 1990s, the strategy worked like a charm, because U.S. companies still responded to higher growth and productivity with strong job creation and wage increases. But those connections have weakened badly since then.

Consider the following. The Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007 saw GDP grow by an average of 2.7 percent a year, 30 percent slower than the 3.5 percent annual gains for a comparable period in the 1990s, say 1993 to 1998. But while the number of private sector jobs grew by more than 18 percent from 1993 to 1998, this rate fell to less than 6 percent from 2002 to 2007, a two-thirds decline from the earlier period . Even worse, the connection between productivity and wage gains broke down even more. In the 1990s, productivity grew 2.5 percent per-year, and average wages increased nearly in lock-step, by 2.2 percent a year. In grim contrast, productivity grew 3 percent a year from 2002 to 2007 while the average wage didn’t go up at all.

Clinton’s program could take strong job creation and wage gains virtually for granted. President Obama’s program will have to address these issues head on, and in ways that might attract some bipartisan support. Obama will also have to contend with additional hurdles, including the persistent economic drag from the financial crisis and, perhaps, from another round triggered by Europe’s faltering sovereign debt.

Here are three ways to begin.

First, while the President’s temporary payroll tax cut for workers provides some welcome stimulus, reducing the tax burden that falls directly on job creation on a permanent basis — the employer side of the payroll tax — would be more powerful economically.  We could cut employer payroll taxes in half, for example, and replace the revenues with a new carbon fee on greenhouse gases. In the bargain, the United States also would become the world’s leading nation in fighting climate change.

To address stagnating wages as well as slow job growth, the President should recast his training agenda as a new right. Most jobs today — and virtually all positions very soon — require some real skills with computers and other information technologies. All working Americans should have the opportunity to upgrade their IT skills, year after year. They could have that, and at modest cost to taxpayers, if Washington will give community colleges new grants to keep their computer labs open and staffed at night and on weekends, so any American can walk in and receive additional IT training for free.

Finally, U.S. multinationals have lobbied furiously, without success, for a temporary tax cut on profits they bring back from abroad. Give them what they want, if they will give the economy what it needs. We could let U.S. multinationals bring back, say, 50 percent of their foreign profits at a lower tax rate if, and only if, they expand their U.S. work forces by 5 percent. A 6 percent increase in a company’s U.S. workers would entitle them to bring back 60 percent of those profits at a lower tax rate, and on up to a 10 percent job increase and 100 percent of foreign profits.

That’s what it will take, just to begin, for an economically-powerful program of public investment and fiscal restraint to work its magic this time.

The Truth about Job Creation under Obama and Bush

Everyone knows that unemployment is high today and unlikely to fall by much soon. Yet, a longer view of the official jobs data would startle most people, including virtually everyone in the media. Nearly three years into Barack Obama’s presidency, his record on private job creation has actually been much stronger than George W. Bush’s at the same point in his first term. Whatever the public perception, the real record provides strong evidence for both the relative success of Obama’s economic program and how hard it now is for American businesses to create large numbers of new jobs — as they did once so effortlessly, and without political prodding.

Let’s go to the numbers reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In the first 33 months of George W. Bush’s presidency, from February 2001 to October 2003, the number of Americans with private jobs fell by 3,054,000 or 2.74 percent. Perhaps Americans were too distracted by Osama bin Laden to pay attention, or everyone was lulled by the dependably strong job creation of the 1980s and 1990s.  Whatever the reason back then, Americans are certainly paying attention to jobs now. Yet, few seem to have noticed that Barack Obama’s jobs record has unquestionably been much better. In the first 33 months of his presidency, from February 2009 to October 2011, private sector employment fell by 723,000 jobs or 0.66 percent. That means that over the first 33 months of the two presidents’ terms, jobs were lost at more than four times the rate under Bush as under Obama. 

To be fair, new presidents shouldn’t be held responsible for job losses or job gains in the first five or six months of their administrations.  Bush’s signature tax cuts, for example, weren’t enacted until June 2001; and while Congress passed Obama’s signature stimulus program earlier in his term, it didn’t take effect for several more months. But the story is the same when we start counting up jobs without the first five months of each president’s term. The BLS reports that from July 2001 to October 2003 under Bush’s program, U.S. businesses shed 2,167,000 jobs, or about 2 percent of the workforce. Over the comparable period under Obama’s policies, from July 2009 to October 2011, American businesses added 1,890,000 jobs, expanding the workforce by 1.75 percent. In fact, private employment in Bush’s first term didn’t begin to turn around in a sustained way until March 2004, 38 months into his term. By contrast, private employment under Obama started to score gains by April and May of 2010, 14 to 15 months into his term.

The same dynamics have played out with manufacturing workers. While they have taken a beating under both presidents, they suffered much harder blows under Bush than Obama. Setting aside, once again, the first five months of each president’s term, the data show that under Bush, 2,141,000 Americans employed in producing goods lost their jobs by October 2003, a 9 percent decline. Under Obama, job losses in goods production totaled 183,000 over the comparable period, a 1.0 percent decline.

Public perceptions, especially of Obama’s record, may be skewed by the collapse of the jobs market in the months before he took office. In the final, dismal year of Bush’s second term, from February 2008 through January 2009, American businesses laid off an astonishing 5,220,000 workers, 4.5 percent of the entire private-sector workforce. Obama and the Fed managed to staunch the hemorrhaging. But the huge job losses in the year before he took office have become a political hurdle which Obama must overcome before he can take credit for putting Americans back to work.

Apart from the obvious disconnect between conventional wisdom and what actually has happened with jobs, the data also speak to certain features of the labor market and the policies we use to affect it. For example, both presidents began their terms with large fiscal stimulus programs, backed up by more stimulus from the Federal Reserve. So, the record now shows clearly that when the economy is depressed, spending stimulus has a more powerful effect on jobs than personal tax cuts.

Beyond that, why couldn’t either president restore the much stronger job creation rates of the 1990s and 1980s? Obama’s economic team can point to the long-term effects of the 2008 housing collapse and financial crisis, especially the impact of four years of falling home values on middle-class consumption. But another factor also has been at work here, one which contributed mightily to the slow job creation under both presidents, and will similarly affect the next president.

The tectonic change from strong job creation of the 1980s and 1990s to the current times is, in a word, globalization. From 1990 to 2008, the share of worldwide GDP traded across national borders jumped from 18 percent to more than 30 percent, the highest level ever recorded. Intense, new competition from all of that additional trade has made it harder for American businesses to raise their prices, as competition usually does. That’s why inflation has remained tame for more than decade, here and nearly everywhere else in the world. The problem that American employers have faced — and still do — is that certain costs have risen sharply over the same years, especially health care and energy costs. Businesses that cannot pass along higher costs in higher prices have to cut back elsewhere, and they started with jobs and wages.

One irony here is that the Obama health care reform should relieve some of the pressure on jobs, by slowing medical cost increases. The administration’s energy program, still stalled in Congress, also might slow fuel cost increases, at least over time. So, if he does win reelection in the face of high unemployment, there is a reasonable prospect of stronger job creation in his second term than in his first one — or in either of George W. Bush’s terms.

Is This the Final Countdown to a Global Financial Calamity?

Ground zero of the European sovereign crisis has moved from Greece to Italy, and that’s very bad news for Europe, the United States, and most everywhere else. For a year, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy have looked for some way to both prevent Greece from defaulting outright and reassure bond investors that Italy’s sovereign debt will remain sound. This week, the price that Italy pays to borrow money soared as global investors determined that holding Italian bonds is increasingly risky. The salacious Silvio Berlusconi is on his way out, but that won’t change the market’s judgment that Merkel and Sarkozy’s stratagems have failed. Europe now faces a real and present danger that major banks across Germany and France, along with Italy and Greece, could fail soon. Such a meltdown would take down the American expansion with it.

It’s still premature for a post mortem. But for the past year, domestic European politics, not international finance, has squeezed the acceptable options to solve the Eurozone’s metastasizing sovereign debt problems. Merkel and Sarkozy have long known that their countrymen and women would pick up pitchforks if their governments moved to bail out big banks a second time. If that wasn’t enough to inspire street demonstrations, the contemplated bailout this time would go to stabilize financial conditions in other countries. So Merkel and Sarkozy came up with a plan that appeared to spare French and German taxpayers. Unfortunately, it also couldn’t pass a laugh test by worldwide investors:  The plan has Eurozone financial stabilization board raising $1 trillion from those investors to back up Italy’s debt, with a pledge that Eurozone governments would guarantee the first 20 percent of any losses. Think about it: Italy, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal , all hanging by a thread or worse, would help the rest of the Eurozone cover the initial losses from bonds used to bail out Italy, Greece, Ireland and Portugal — and if things go south, probably Spain as well.

The $1 trillion commitment kept a meltdown at bay for a few days, much as the Bush Treasury’s commitment to spend $700 billion to bail out Wall Street staved off a market collapse after Lehman failed. The original Paulson plan also didn’t pass the laugh test, but no one doubted that the U.S. Government could raise the $700 billion. This time, the Eurozone’s $1 trillion commitment has bought them at most a few weeks of breathing space, as investors wait for Merkel and Sarkozy to come up with a real plan to raise it. But those investors already are eyeing the exits. Interbank lending to Europe’s biggest institutions dried up this week, just as it did here in the days before Lehman sank. And interest rates on Italian bonds are now so high that, according to the industry’s financial models, Rome will be unable to service its debt much longer.

All of this means that neither global investors nor European taxpayers are prepared to bail out the Eurozone. Even at this very late date, however, there are ways out of this mess:  Under the least bad of the options left, the European Central Bank (ECB) would become the Eurozone’s bond buyer of last resort.  The ECB could pay for them by printing enough Euros, for starters, to stabilize Italian bond markets. It wouldn’t be pretty. The Euro would weaken. European interest rates might edge up as Europe slowed. And the ECB would have to come up with another credible plan to withdraw the excess Euros once the crisis passed. But the alternative is much worse.

In a period of worst case scenarios, here’s what could well happen later this month. Start with the fact that Italy alone has $2 trillion in outstanding government debt. Most of those bonds are held by Italian, French and German banks, including the biggest banks in the world. Anything approaching an Italian default would wipe out the capital of those banks, leaving them insolvent; and most of the Eurozone economies would grind to a halt.

It gets worse, because a financial meltdown centered on sovereign debt is much more dangerous than one triggered by mortgage-backed securities. In effect, a sovereign debt crisis strips sovereigns of their ability to act to contain the crisis. With Italy and Greece in default, for example, who will believe those governments as they move to head off general bank runs by, say, guaranteeing money market balances as the United States did successfully in the days after Lehman?  And if the biggest banks in France and Germany go down, Sarkozy and Merkel wouldn’t have the credibility to do much about it either.

The bad news doesn’t end with Europe. Our own big financial institutions, along with those in Britain and Japan, have thousands of deals going that involve the major banks in Germany, France and Italy. Overnight, all of those deals become suspect, which could spread financial panic beyond the Eurozone. And remember the credit default swaps that destroyed AIG?  No one knows precisely how many of those “guarantees” are out today against Italian government bonds and the commercial paper of French, German and Italian banks. The fact that no one knows could be a big problem in itself, since that, too, could breed a broader financial panic. In any case, there’s little doubt that those credit default swaps involve, at a minimum, hundreds of billions of dollars, Euros and pounds. That would leave American, European and Japanese financial institutions on the hook for those losses. And if they can’t make good on them, they could go down as well. Their only hope would be another bailout — if Congress could approve one before the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street folks pick up their pitchforks.

All this is not yet inevitable. But much of it might well unfold, and probably in a matter of weeks, unless the Eurozone’s leaders face the grim music and finally find their way to a real program to head it off.

The Economic Appeal of the Occupy Wall Street Movement to Middle-Class Americans

Seemingly out of nowhere, economic inequality is no longer the political issue that dares not speak its name. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, politicians who talk about reducing disparities in incomes or wealth have been promptly charged with “class warfare.” The stunning success of the Occupy Wall Street movement in attracting adherents and sympathizers could change that, at least for the current political season. What lies behind the movement’s surprising middle-class appeal, however, isn’t high unemployment or slow economic growth. The real reason is that the 2008 meltdown and its economic aftermath have cut the wealth of millions of average Americans by up to half — and Washington has been unwilling to do anything about it.

There is little controversy among economists that the fabled U.S. land of opportunity has become one of the world’s most unequal societies. Using the standard measure (the “Gini Coefficient”), America now ranks 93rd in the world in terms of economic equality. That puts us behind places like Iran, Russia and China. The poverty in those places is much worse, but the concentration of wealth is much greater here. According to the Federal Reserve, the top 1 percent of us in 2007 owned nearly 35 percent of everything of value, net of debt — that includes savings, stocks and bonds, real estate, art, furniture, clothing, on and on. Perhaps more important, the top 20 percent of Americans owned 85 percent of the country’s net wealth.

Yet, such striking inequality still cannot explain the appeal of Occupy Wall Streeters — I’ll call it the OWS movement — because comparable disparities of wealth have been around for a generation. Go back to 1983, and the top 1 percent of Americans owned 34 percent of the country, and the top 20 percent claimed 82 percent.

The answer here lies in the particular way that the financial and housing meltdown has affected middle-class families. Consider the following: While the bottom 80 percent held only 15 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2007, most of it was tied up in the value of their homes. We know that, because when we break down that 15 percent figure, we find that the bottom 80 percent held just 7 percent of all financial assets in 2007 but 40 percent of all residential real estate assets. And the housing boom topped out in 2007.

The reason the OWS movement resonates so broadly today lies in the subsequent loss of so much housing wealth.  The 2008 meltdown and its aftermath have driven down the value of residential real estate by about 35 percent. And that 35 percent included most or all of the equity that millions of middle class families had in their homes in 2007.  America already was a place where 80 percent of the people held only 15 percent of the country’s wealth. Now, do the math. About half of that wealth was in financial assets like savings and pensions (the Fed’s 7 percent figure), and the rest was in home equity. So, since 2007, the bottom 80 percent of Americans have lost up to half of their net wealth.

Those losses also aren’t distributed evenly:  Households in their 30’s and 40’s, for example, usually have almost everything they own tied up in their home equity, and which typically adds up to less than one-third of their homes’ value.  They’ve been wiped out, wealth-wise.  Older households, on average, have larger home equity, so they still have some modest increment of wealth. But if they’re approaching retirement or already retired, there’s also little they can ever do to make up their losses.

When middle-class Americans turn to Washington, they see the resounding success of the government’s efforts to stabilize the financial markets – where the top 1 percent derive most of their wealth. The rich are back to becoming even richer. That’s the way America has operated for at least the last generation. What grates on middle-class Americans this time is that they’ve been getting poorer. And Washington has done little to stabilize the market from which they derive most of their wealth, which is housing.

To be fair, President Obama can claim a little credit here, since he has proposed a series of initiatives to support housing, mainly by giving banks incentives to refinance more mortgages at favorable terms.  But the largest force driving down housing prices and wiping out middle-class home equity is sky-high home foreclosure rates.  The President hasn’t yet taken on those foreclosures, but he still has time to champion a new initiative.  For instance, he could call for temporary loans for families whose mortgages are in trouble, financed through lending by the Federal Home Loan Banks.

Mitt Romney, Obama’s most likely challenger, can’t call for anything.  Last week, Romney went to the state with the highest foreclosure rate in the country, Nevada, and made what may turn out to be a very costly mistake.  Embracing GOP dogma that “the right course is to let markets work,” he declared that Washington should let the foreclosure process “run its course and hit the bottom.”

Yet, this is the very process now hollowing out a good-sized slice of the American middle class.  Given Romney’s position, the issue provides a new opportunity for the Obama campaign.  Much more important, however, the problem itself presents a critical challenge for economic policy makers. If they and the next President ignore it, inequality in America almost certainly will enter a very nasty, new phase.

Why The President’s New Economic Plan Is A Good One

I released the following statement today on the President's new economic plan:

"The President has offered a plan suited to both the short-term challenges arising from our current economic conditions and the long-term challenges coming from rising global competition.    

He begins in the right place, with a package of policies seen by most economists as particularly well-suited to jumpstart job creation and support stronger growth.   He also has presented a fiscal plan to help sustain that strong growth, by reigning in long-term deficits while enhancing strategic investments.  The administration’s long-term deficit plan would further trim domestic spending, including defense, wind down our wartime spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, raise additional revenue from high-income Americans, and reduce the unnecessary and least necessary areas of spending for Medicare and Medicaid.  In this way, the administration relies on all of the same sources for deficit savings as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Senate “Gang of Six,” and the deficit-reduction programs carried out under both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.  

Finally, the President preserves those public investments which undergird strong growth and U.S. competitiveness, especially in basic research and development, education and training for American workers, and basic infrastructure that all businesses and workers depend on.  This package deserves the support of the country and the Congress. "

Protectionism Remains a Danger to Economic Recovery

Tough times almost always raise the pressure for trade protection, and the current global economic troubles are no exception.  President Obama has generally resisted this impulse, asking Congress to approve new free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.  Still, Congress has yet to act. And here and around the world, new duties or other restrictions have been applied on a range of imports. More broadly, protectionist demands from India, Brazil and other large developing nations have stalled the completion of the Doha multilateral trade round.   Even so, a renewed commitment by Congress and the Administration to expand trade may be the best way currently available to help support a faltering U.S. recovery. 

Such a push will have to confront the strong temptation in times like these to turn to measures which would reduce trade, most notably anti-dumping and countervailing duties against imports from developing countries.  The futility of this approach has been demonstrated time after time, perhaps most recently in the decision by the International Trade Commission (ITC) to slap anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties on imports of coated paper products from China and Indonesia.  I won’t argue about whether or not that decision was consistent with U.S. law.  My focus is entirely on whether or not it will help or harm American consumers, paper companies and their employees.  So I conducted a case study to find out:  The conclusion is, those duties harm American consumers without providing any assistance to American paper companies and their workers.

This issue is especially timely since September 21 of this year is the one-year anniversary of the Department of Commerce decision to impose the new antidumping and countervailing duties on coated paper imports from China and Indonesia.  The ITC reaffirmed the duties last October with the final vote in November 2010.

The case began in September 2009, when three large U.S. paper companies and the United Steel Workers, which represents 6,000 of their employees, filed for relief from the ITC under the anti-dumping and countervailing duty laws.  They won their case: The ITC imposed duties of between about 8 percent and 135 percent on coated-paper imports from China and duties of 18 percent to 20 percent on imports of those products from Indonesia.  These duties, of course, raise the prices for those imports here, wiping out most or all of the difference between the prices that Americans businesses and consumers paid for those imports and the prices they paid for coated-paper products made here.  And without that price competition, the result is higher prices not only for the imports, but also for U.S. and European paper products.  

This makes no economic sense:  At a time when overall demand by American consumers and businesses is flagging, forcing them to pay more for these products only leaves less for them to spend on everything else.  

Nor are there benefits for our own paper producers and workers to offset these higher costs.  The reason lies in the fact that our producers compete with Indonesian and Chinese paper makers not only here, but around the world.  So, as the new duties contract their share of the U.S. market, the Indonesian and Chinese paper producers have more product to sell in third-country markets.  We found that this increase in the available supply of these products will drive down the prices of Chinese and Indonesian coated paper in those countries between 7 percent and nearly 19 percent.  The predictable effect is that their market share in those countries will increase at the expense of American producers.   That’s how global markets work.  

In addition, our new duties may trigger retaliation by China and Indonesia, targeting U.S. exports of the same products to their own markets.  That’s precisely what happened in other cases of U.S. antidumping and anti-subsidy duties.  Since China is the third largest market for U.S. coated paper products, such retaliation could further harm our own producers.

The irony is that coated paper is an example of an unusually well-functioning market.  From 2007 to 2009, when this particular case was filed, coated-paper imports to the United States had actually contracted by more than 30 percent.  Imports from China and Indonesia had increased, but imports from European countries had declined even more, so the domestic market share of American producers had increased from 61 percent to 66 percent.  In addition, the prices paid for these products by American consumers and businesses had fallen by between 2 percent and 6 percent.   This was not a market than needed to be “fixed” by new duties.

Further, the U.S. market for these products was segmented quite efficiently.  An ITC survey had found that business customers for these products judged American, Chinese and Indonesian products comparable in terms of quality, product consistency, packaging, discounts, and credit terms.  Business customers also found Chinese and Indonesian products superior for their lower prices. The survey also reported that American customers preferred the American-made products for the range and availability of product, reliability of supply, delivery terms and delivery time, and technical support.   Various advantages and disadvantages, then, produced a market in which buyers choose based on what is most important to them.  

The emergence of China and Indonesia as major paper producers also has followed a very powerful and natural dynamic in the global paper industry; namely, that paper production follows paper consumption.  In nearly all cases, a country’s capacity to produce paper products has expanded or contracted with its share of worldwide consumption of the products.  For example, as the U.S. share of worldwide consumption of paper products fell from 41 percent in 1970 to 19.4 percent in 2009, our share of worldwide production of the same products fell from 40 percent to 20.5 percent.   Similarly, China and Indonesia’s combined share of worldwide consumption of paper products went from just over 2 percent in 1970 to 25.3 percent in 2009.  Over the same years, their combined share of worldwide production of those products rose from just under 2 percent to 25.6 percent.

It is also only natural that companies like to see their competitors hobbled.  Laws and regulations in the United States, as in most other countries, still contain hundreds of instances in which a special burden is imposed on certain companies or a special benefit is conferred on other companies, all to the detriment of their rivals.  Consumers almost never win from such special grants.  And as this case study shows, when the special burdens involve protectionism targeted to an industry’s foreign rivals, the American firms and workers that called for the protection also lose in the end.

This Week's Debt Deal Is George W. Bush's Revenge – But It Won't Last

There is plenty of blame to go around for the recent debt and deficit shenanigans, but who should get the credit? I nominate George W. Bush.  Not only did his administration’s negligence secure the foundations for the financial upheavals which ultimately created much of the short-term deficit.  The role of his tax cuts in driving much of the medium term deficits is also certainly well-known.  But the last month’s budget warfare also highlights the significance of his distinctive innovation in fiscal policy:  Unlike FDR and LBJ, W established a major new entitlement – Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits for seniors – without a revenue stream to pay for it.  This unhappy innovation also helped shape the austerity plan the President signed this week.

Consider the following.  The only certain budget cuts in the deal are $915 billion in discretionary program reductions over ten years.  In fact, those cuts very nearly match the $815 billion in unfunded costs for Medicare Part D over the same period.  And Bush’s dogged resistance to paying for those benefits has now revealed the priorities of those in both parties who think we do have to pay for them.  Since those priorities dictate no new revenues for Republicans and no cuts in Part D benefits for Democrats, that leaves only the large-scale cuts in discretionary programs in this week’s deal.

But this also creates a quandary that is certain to become very prominent, very soon.   The plan says clearly that avoiding entitlements and taxes trumps everything else in the budget.  Yet, the arithmetic, both budgetary and political, says that Congress and the President cannot deal with the long-term deficits and debt without venturing deeply into both areas. So far, the Tea Party’s acolytes in both houses have vetoed any new revenues, which in turn has locked in the progressives’ veto on entitlement changes.  Yet, this week’s deal also sets up a choice down the road that will very likely isolate the Tea Party’s denizens in Congress.

The President and Harry Reid in the Senate have already vowed that unless revenues are part of the next, $1.5 trillion tranche of fiscal changes, they’re prepared to let across-the-board cuts go forward – and blame the other side.   And when that tranche of deficit reductions comes due, the Tea Party won’t have the leverage of an expiring debt limit.  Instead, progressives will have more leverage, because the across-the-board cuts would slice through the fat at the Pentagon and well into the muscle.  If history is any guide, conservative Republicans hate deep cuts in defense spending even more than they abhor tax increases.

George W. Bush never had to choose between defense and taxes, because Bill Clinton left a big budget surplus to spend.   When it ran out, W. opted for his legacy of large, structural deficits.  Ronald Reagan started out the same way, but the deep recession of 1981-1982 brought on his big deficits quickly.  And when that happened, Reagan opted repeatedly for new revenues to protect his defense spending.   Today’s Tea Party Republicans are no Reaganites:  As John Boehner discovered when he tried to cut a deal with Barack Obama that included higher revenues and limited defense cuts, Tea Party House members have been determined to avoid new revenues even if it means much less for defense.

Limited defense cuts – $350 billon over ten years – are already part of the initial round of cutbacks.  When the additional $1.5 trillion comes due, defense’s share of across-the-board cuts will draw dire predictions and protests – all with the administration’s tactical blessing.  When that happens, what can conservatives like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell do but follow Ronald Reagan’s example.  So, whatever the rightwing flank of the GOP says today, next time out Republicans will be forced to accept revenue increases.  And since Medicare is on the line with defense, Democrats will also be forced to accept some changes in entitlements.  The combination will leave the Tea Party with no choice but to howl and take their case into the 2012 elections.

The Real Crisis Here Isn’t Over the Budget or the Debt Limit

The United States, everyone seems to agree, faces an economic crisis, though its character depends on who raises the alarm.  Most economists are mainly worried about financial turmoil and a deep slump if the U.S. government defaults on its sovereign obligations.   Traditional conservatives fret about the prospects for future business investment and growth if Washington doesn’t cut deeply into its long-term deficits.   And progressives are stewing about rising unemployment and falling incomes if the drive to slash the federal budget succeeds.   The truth is, while all of these concerns are justified, the real crisis today isn’t really about the economy.  It’s about our capacity to govern ourselves – and this crisis of governance has more serious implications than any of the economic scenarios now haunting the experts and politicians.

The proof lies in the fact that everyone involved in the process knows full well how to resolve our current economic challenges.  We can avoid the turmoil that would follow a U.S. sovereign debt default by doing what Congress has done countless times before, raising the legal debt limit.  We can avoid stunting business investment and growth by adopting some version of the plans put forth by at least three bipartisan groups in just the last twelve months.  The Simpson Bowles Commission, the Rivlin-Domenici Task Force and, the new favorite, the  Gang of Six in the Senate have all laid out the basic outlines for reforming entitlements and defense spending and raising additional revenues.  And if the press accounts are correct, President Obama and House Speaker Boehner briefly agreed a few weeks ago on a blueprint with the same basic outline.   Even progressive concerns can be addressed by phasing in such a plan slowly, starting a year or two down the road. 

Everybody knows what they have to do and how to do it.  The crisis, then, comes entirely from their unwillingness or real incapacity to do what has to be done.   And since most politicians understand their own self-interest, we have to assume that their incapacity reflects popular sentiment in some way.

It all goes back to the way Washington responded to the financial and economic turmoil of 2008-2009.   Two presidents and two Congresses spent $1 trillion of taxpayers’ money to stabilize the financial system.  Yet, somehow, they neglected to require that the rescued institutions use any of the funds to help the rest of the country, for example by jumpstarting business lending or staunching the waves of home foreclosures.  They didn’t even apply any of those conditions to companies such as AIG, Citigroup, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which the government owned outright or held a controlling interest after the bailouts.  Then, the Federal Reserve compounded this negligence by providing additional trillions of dollars in virtually cost-free funds to every large financial institution, again with no requirements that any of that largesse go to help support American businesses or homeowners.  The result is a corrosive popular cynicism that renders the normal responses to the debt limit and budgetary problems as somehow deeply suspect.

As much as anyone, the President had a profound interest in these steps working out better than they did.  One only has to recall the confident assertions of the White House that 2010 would see a “recovery summer” to know that that the President’s advisors truly believed that the flood of bailouts, stimulus, and free money for the banks would be enough to reignite business activity and stabilize housing prices.  This misplaced confidence is also the only reasonable explanation for the decision to turn the page on economic policy by turning to health care reform. 

Like all good leaders, the President came to recognize and learn from his mistakes.  So he cleaned out most of his original economic team and called for new public investments to invigorate the economy.  By then, however, the political damage was done.  Millions of voters turned to a new group of Tea Party radicals so caught up in their own cynicism about government that their agenda became its dismantling.  And with many of those radicals winning office by first defeating traditional conservatives like Utah’s Bob Bennett for GOP nominations, it put a quickening fear of involuntary retirement in the hearts of many GOP leaders.

The current crisis of governance comes from these radicals’ decision to begin their dismantling by refusing to approve any increase in the legal debt limit.  Some say so directly; others couch it in a catalogue of extravagant demands to slash spending and raise no new revenues.  So far, at least, the radicals’ intransigence has precluded the kind of compromise that the President and traditional conservatives seem prepared to carry out.

That leaves the resolution of this crisis largely with the Republican leadership.  Can John Boehner, facing an underground challenge from the radical Eric Cantor, and Mitch McConnell, facing a similar threat from Jim DeMint, face down their Tea Party members and cut the deal with the President?   And can the President give them some cover by mobilizing public support for such a compromise from the majority of Americans who remain cynical about government, even as they want to preserve most of it? 

If they fail, we may all face an economic deterioration that will only further magnify the public’s cynicism.  And, who knows?  We could also see new forms of radicalism emerge across the political spectrum which would make governing the world’s most powerful and important nation even more difficult.

The Real Dangers from the New Austerity

To an economist, the current crusade by congressional Republicans to slash spending during a slow expansion seems to be about half ideology — the crude Tea Party view that most of what government does is corrupt or wasteful — and about half simple partisanship. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many governments have been gripped by a similar devotion to austerity; and this week, the Bank of International Settlements came on board as well. This is not the first time that this particular, political conventional wisdom has become dangerous economic nonsense. Austerity was the state-of-the-art view in the early 1930s of central bankers, Treasury officials, presidents and prime ministers — and, yes, most economists. So, the United States and most of Europe applied it, and turned a stock market collapse and nasty recession into a banking crisis, trade war and, finally, a great global depression.

This time, the call for economically destructive budget-cutting in this country has come largely from Republican politicians, although they’ve managed to bully many of their centrist Democratic colleagues to join. Still, the Federal Reserve, the IMF, the World Bank and, this time, virtually all economists are trying to hold the line for economic sanity; and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, perhaps the leading economic commentator in the English-speaking world, wrote this past week that the new austerity “risks a disaster.” Yet, if the know-nothings have their way with our economic policy, as they did 80 years ago, the ultimate winner could well be China.

These stakes are so high that it’s worthwhile to walk through the actual economics in play here. The basic issue here is not whether both the public and private sectors, here and in most other advanced economies, have too much debt for our own good. They do. As for the private sector debt, yes, most Americans used their credit cards too freely for a decade. But the main reason for the high levels of personal debt, especially relative to people’s assets, is the housing meltdown: It destroyed much of the equity American held in their homes — the main asset for most families here — while leaving their mortgage debts largely untouched. And American households have responded sensibly: Personal saving is way up — which is why consumer spending is weak and, in turn, the expansion has been disappointing.

The only way to strengthen personal spending when most people are busy rebuilding their savings is to give them more money to spend. In principle, the additional money could come from higher wages, which recent productivity gains would support. In practice, with unemployment stuck at high levels, businesses feel little pressure to raise wages. In addition to raising wages, business has another way to inject demand into the economy: Invest at high levels. If they did that, the companies that produce equipment and other business assets would have to hire more workers, and when those workers got paid, consumer spending would increase. But most companies can’t justify investing more when most consumers are still on the sidelines, rebuilding their savings.

Just like American consumers, American businesses are saving more too: In the face of strong profits — much of them earned abroad, in stronger economies — they’ve increased their “retained earnings.” With everybody in the private economy holding back, the United States has slipped into what the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center calls a “contained depression,” when everybody but the government tries to strengthen their balance sheets at the same time.

Given that, what happens if the government decides to join everybody else and save more as well, by eliminating its own structural deficit at once? The austerity hawks promise it would restore “business confidence” and so drive an economic rebound. Only in their dreams would fiscal tightening in the face of weak consumer demand move businesses to unleash an investment boom — and most business people aren’t dreamers. In the real world, sharp government cutbacks shrink GDP and corporate profits, reinforcing the determination of consumers and businesses to save more.

To his credit, the President has tried to resist the new austerity. He argued for expanding public investments, and (alas) nobody listened. Now he’s trying to offer the Republicans a little stimulus in ways that under more normal conditions they couldn’t refuse — a temporary cut in both the employer and employee sides of the payroll tax. That would give consumers a little more money to spend, and it would give businesses a supply-side tax cut to hire more workers. The President even offers to assuage the jealous gods of budget restraint by offsetting the revenues with cuts in tax subsidies for unpopular industries. Yet, GOP leaders keep on saying no. That’s hard to reconcile with claims that the GOP’s current positions on the deficit and taxes represent a sincere economic perspective. And that only leaves partisanship to explain their insistence on austerity in the face of basic economics.

There is one other big difference between today and the 1930s: While the United States and Europe struggle today as they did 80 years ago, this time globalization has enabled the two-fifths of the world made up of emerging economies to enjoy something close to boom times. Introduce government austerity on top of a “contained depression” in the advanced economies, and the prices of western stocks and other assets will tumble. That’s the moment when the sovereign wealth funds, fledgling multinationals and recently-minted billionaires from China and other large developing countries will inject a bundle of new demand into our economy: They’ll start buying up our companies and other assets at fire-sale prices. The end game of the current fling with know-nothing austerity economics, then, is that our strongest and most ambitious rivals will walk away with a big slice of our future prosperity.

"Global Mobile" Weekly Roundup- June 24, 2011

President Obama visited Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center today to speak on technology, innovation, and a renaissance of American manufacturing.  The full text of the speech can be found here.

On mobile technology and health:

A post by Marissa Glauberman on ONE blog details the accomplishments of the partnership between the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and the Vodafone Foundation in their efforts to use mobile technology to improve health care in developing countries.

Below is an interview with Awa Dieng of, a Kenya-based companythat invented a data compilation and sharing software called EpiSurveyor that is greatly increasing efficiency in developing countries' healthcare providers in responding to health threats:

This post was part of a series within another ONE blog that is definitely worth keeping track of it you're interested in mobile technology's role in development: "Digital Africa"

Another article on mobile technology's uses in global health initiatives (which is very much worth reading for examples of other organizations and other innovations) reported the statistic:

Of the 114 countries surveyed by the World Health Organization, only 19 did not use some form of mobile health technology

On wireless technology and Asia:

According to an article for ZD Net Asia by Liau Yun Qing, Long Term Evolution (LTE) rollouts in the Asia-Pacific region are ongoing and the 4G technology is fast becoming mainstream.  Alan Hadden, president of GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association) is quoted as saying:

...the Asia region is "consistently in the forefront of mobile communications industry developments and this will continue"

On the rise of "SoLoMo" (Social, Location, Mobile) startups and what more traditional businesses should do in response:

According to Bruce LeSourd writing for iMedia Connection in association with Apple:

A new industry of SoLoMo startups has appeared in the last two years, built from the ground up to exploit the convergence of people, information, services, things, and places on modern mobile platforms.

LeSourd goes on to explain the impact this will have on the way traditional "brick-and mortar" companies do business and then lays out a list of recommendations for remaining competitive, all of which can be found in the full article here.

And finally, on mobile mobile technology:

An article by Jonathan Oosting for on mobile technology inside vehicles and why it's a high-risk, high-reward game to be playing.


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