Green Project

Health Care Lessons for Energy

Last night's speech by President Obama in support of health care legislation, fiery yet thoughtful, and designed, as E.J. Dionne remarks today, to seize the autumn after a summer dominated by his opponents, increases the chances of passage of a health care bill this year.  By engaging directly and forcefully with Congress and the American people, last night the President injected himself into a debate including all of its details that until now he has largely tried to steer clear of.  The strongest parts of the speech were those where steeped in detail he argued for the overall package on the basis of its component parts.  The speech was significant not only for the prospects of health care legislation this year, but also for the President's entire agenda, including the next large legislative item on tap: energy and climate change legislation.

As with health care legislation, the President's strategy on energy and climate has been to set broad goals and encourage Congress to tackle the details.  As a former Senator himself, it is not surprising that he would have confidence in the ability of Congress to write law.  In the case of climate, the House did pass a bill this year and though the cap and trade component was weakened in drafting, the bill contains a meaningful Renewable Electricity Standard and other provisions critical to stimulating the growth of renewable electricity. 

While that strategy worked in the House, the Senate chose to postpone action this summer until after healthcare.  One rationale for postponement was to use the momentum created by health care to move energy as well.  Now, however, it appears less likely that health care will grease the skids for energy legislation.  Instead, the mobilization of Republicans against health care may carry over to energy.  Nonetheless, the health care debate suggests some important lessons for moving energy legislation.

The first lesson is that moving a bill--particularly one with a climate change component--is likely to require direct presidential engagement.  Currently the Administration does not have positions on many of the specifics of the energy bill.  It should develop positions and thorough arguments to back them up.  Absent direct engagement, it will be to easy for opponents of the legislation to suggest postponement.  While health care is the topic now at the top of the agenda, the Administration should begin laying the groundwork now for engagement when energy comes up later in the fall.

Second, the Administration has to decide whether to pursue a partisan or non partisan strategy.  Either way, it is critical that the Administration win over moderate Democrats.  Without them, it cannot pursue a partisan strategy.  And without them even a non partisan strategy becomes that much more difficult.  This too will require direct presidential engagement to determine which Senators require which changes to the law to feel comfortable supporting the overall package.  The key argument to be made to moderate Democrats is the economic one: that the US needs to take leadership in developing new energy technologies lest leadership of this vital sector pass to other countries.  The second most important argument is energy security.  What could be more absurd, after all, than fighting two wars in the Middle East and sparring with Iran over politics, while continuing to import large quantities of oil from that region.  The time to begin reaching out to the Democratic moderates is now.

Many commentators have correclty observed that the current Administration, at times seems to have learned too well the lessons of the early Clinton years of not trying to be overly prescriptive with respect to legislation.  However, the opposite is also true: the Administration cannot stay out of the fray.

To pass energy legislation as with health care, the Administration will need to engage and, yes, sweat the details.

The Key to the Fall Debate: Staying Focused on the Economy

The last few months have not been particularly good ones for Democrats.  That's the bad news.  The good news is there a clear roadmap for how they can use the coming months to get back on track, and it revolves around staying relentlessly focused on the economy and the struggle of every day people.  

1) The Lack of Income Growth for Average Families is the Greatest Domestic Challenge Facing America Today.   Depending on how you cut the data, American families have not seen their incomes rise in at least eight, and perhaps, ten years.  Even in the Bush recovery, which was by many measures, robust, median incomes declined, poverty levels increased, debt loads exploded.  The typical American family ended the Bush era making $1,000 less than at the beginning. 

Basic economics tells us when productivity increases wages and incomes rise.  When GDP expands, jobs are created at a certain rate.  Neither of these events took place in the Bush era, leading us here at NDN to argue that there is a large structural change being brought about by globalization that is making it harder for the American economy to create jobs and raise the standard of living of every day people.

That median incomes dropped during a robust economic recovery made the Bush recovery different from any other recovery in American history, and has made the current Great Recession different from other recessions.  The American consumer was already in a very weakened state before the current recession, which is why the recession has been more virulent than many predicted, and why the coming "recovery" might be so anemic.  The economy seems to be going through profound, structural change, making old economic models anachronistic.  We are literally in a "new economy" now, one that is not well understood, and one that is confusing even the President's top advisers. 

Simply put, getting people's incomes up is the most important domestic challenge facing those in power today.  It is not surprising that other issues like health care, energy policy and climate change are being seen through a prism of "will this make my life, my economic struggle better today?" because so many families have been down so long, and things have gotten an awful lot worse this year.   Regardless of what they hope to be graded on by the public, the basket of issues that will do more to determine the success of the President and his Party is both the belief that things are getting better, and the reality that they are for most people. 

2) The Public Believes the Economy Is By Far and Away the Most Important Issue Facing the Nation Today.   In poll after poll this year, the public has made it clear that the economy is their most important issue, with really nothing coming in a strong number two.  The new Pew poll out this week maintains the basic ratio we have seen for months: mid 50s say the economy is number one; 20 percent of the American people say health care is their number one concern; and literally "zero" pick energy (see the chart to the right).

While one could mount an argument that one should not govern by polls, one can also ignore them at their own peril.  The country wants their leaders focusing on what is their number one concern - their ability to make a living and provide for their families in a time of economic transformation - which also happens to be, in this case, the most important domestic issue facing the country. 

My own belief is that one of the reasons the President and the Democrats have seen their poll numbers drop is that they have spent too much time talking about issues of lesser concern to people while the economy has gotten worse.   There is a strong argument to be made that the President and the Democrats have taken their eye of the economic ball, and are paying a price for it.  This doesn't mean the President shouldn't be talking about health care, climate change, education, immigration reform, but they must be addressed in ways that reflects both their perceived and actual importance; and as much as possible discussed in the context of long term and short term benefit for every day people and not abstract concepts like "recovery," "growth," "prosperity," which in this decade are things that have happened to other people. 

We have long believed that the lack of a sufficient governmental response to the increasing struggle of every day people has been the central driver of the volatility in the American electorate in recent years (see here and here).  Given the poll and economic data of recent months it is possible that the conditions which have created this volatility remains, and simply cannot be ignored for too long.

3) The Way Forward - Make The Struggle of Every Day People The Central Focus Of the National Debate.    The great domestic challenge facing President Obama is to ensure that, in this new age of globalization and the "rise of the rest," the country sees not "growth" or "recovery" but prosperity that is broadly shared.  Until incomes and wages are rising again, fostering broad-based prosperity has to be the central organizing principle of center-left politics.  It is a job we should be anxious to take on given our philosophical heritage, and one that we simply must admit is a little harder and more complex than many have led us to believe.  

Luckily, the President has been given three significant events in September to begin to make this rhetorical and governing turn - Labor Day next week, and the G20 and UN General Assembly meetings in late September.  He can use this events to re-knit together his argument, weaving in health reform and energy/climate change (and we believe immigration reform too) along the way.  For there is no broad-based prosperity in 21st century America without health care costs coming down (which has to happen to allow us to cover more people), and a successful transition to a low-carbon economy.  Even though the Congressional committee and legislative process requires these to be separate conversations, in fact they are one conversation, one strategy for 21st century American success, one path forward for this mighty and great nation. 

Vice President Biden's speech about the economy today is a very good start in this needed repositioning.  But much more must be done.  In a recent essay I wrote:

There have been calls from some quarters for a 2nd stimulus plan, an acknowledgment that what the first stimulus has not done enough to stop the current economic deterioration.  This may be necessary, but I think what will need to be done is much more comprehensive than just a new stimulus plan.  Future action could include a much more aggressive action against foreclosures, a more honest assessment of the health of our financial sector, an immediate capping of credit card rates and a rollback of actions taken by credit card issuers in the last few months, a speeding up of the 2010 stimulus spending, a completion of the Doha trade round and a much more aggressive G20 effort to produce a more successful global approach to the global recession, the quick passage of the President's community college proposal, enacting comprehensive immigration reform which will bring new revenues into the federal and state governments while removing some of the downward pressure on wages at the low end of the workforce, and recasting both the President's climate and health care initiatives as efforts which will help stop our downward slide and create future growth.

These are some thoughts on how to re-engage the economic conversation but many other people also have great ideas on what to do now that the specter of a true global depression has been averted, and we have the luxury of talking about what to do next.  Which is why NDN is launching a new series of discussions on the global and American economies.  We begin next week with Dr Jagdish Bhagwati and Dr. Rob Shapiro.  Keep checking back on our site for the next events in this important new series based in Washington, DC but also webcast for anyone to watch no matter where they are.

The bottom line - the recent decline in the President's poll numbers are reversible.  The key is for he and his Party to make the struggle of every day people their number one rhetorical and governing concern.  A "new economy" is emerging in America, and it is not has been kind to most Americans.  Getting incomes and wages up in this new economy of the 21st century is in fact the most important dmoestic challenge facing the country, and one the American people are demanding a new national strategy for.  This fall is the time for the President to make it clear to the American people that he understands their concerns, has a strategy to ensure their success in this new economy, and will make their success the central organizing principle of his Administration until prosperity is once again broadly shared.

Removing Roadblocks to the Growth of Renewables

New York City - On Friday, the US Energy Information released new monthly statistics for renewable energy output as well as output of traditional forms of power.  The good news is that renewable energy in May, the latest month for which statistics have been compiled, is at its all time highest level, accounting for 13% of total power.  The bad news, however, is that the vast majority of this, about 9.4% comes from traditional hydropower.  The other renewables, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal accounted for just 3.6%.   Wind accounts for 1.8, biomass, 1.3%, geothermal 0.4% and solar 0.3% of the total. 

All of the sources of renewables grew, but the growth rates were modest.  Wind grew year-on-year by 12.5% and solar by only 3.5%.  These growth rates might be passable for mature technologies with a huge starting base.  However, for comparatively new technologies with a tiny denominator, these growth rates are not impressive.  True, the data do not reflect the full force of the Investment Tax Credit (for solar installations) extended last fall and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed this winter--because of the lag in the data.  Still they tell at best a story of an industry surviving the recession.  They do not tell a story of economic rebirth based on the promise of a low carbon future.

There are reasons to hope clean energy would be growing much faster than these rates--the goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions--essential to addressing climate change--and the goal of creating a new wave of clean technology-driven growth.  (The goal of energy security is less dependent on renewable technologies since coal is present in the United States but is nonetheless also served by replacing oil in our nation's energy mix.) 

However, there are also reasons to expect clean energy to be growing far faster than it is: the declining cost curves of renewables relative to fossil fuels, the large subisidies the government has put in place and the huge push America is making, from the President's speeches to the T.Boone Pickens Plan for energy independence on down.  In many states, renewable energy is even mandated through a Renewable Electricity Standard.  Looking abroad, Germany produces 7% of its power from wind, about four times what the US does and Spain's solar power capacity grew 364% in 2008.  Now that is the type of growth needed to have a real effect!  The fact is US growth rates in renewable industry are not meeting reasonable expectations for clean energy growth, let alone desirable targets.

I have been studying the question of why clean technology is moving so slowly into the marketplace in the United States and my research suggests that adoption of clean technology and renewable energy must be about more than pricing and incentives.  It is about decisionmaking and removing obstacles to the deployment of clean energy.  These obstacles are present, once you peer into the complex world of the electricity industry,in a host of non economic barriers to implementation.

To understand why clean energy is not--even with large incentives in place--displacing dirtier forms of energy, it is important to recall the extraordinarily complex nature of the industry.  Like all large industries, the electricity industry has incumbents.  These incumbents--unlike say car manufacturers or computer companies, are protected by regulation.  During the 1990s, the industry was partially deregulated so that market forces were introduced in some parts of the industry in some regions.  However, the work of regulatory reform proceeded only part way leaving the industry in a sort of limbo  Today, some regions of the country have wholesale competition.  Others have limited retail competition.  Still others have wholly vertically integrated companies supplying their customers with soup to nuts service unchanged from a half century ago.  And there is limited trade in electricity, this in an era, when frozen dinners served in the United States are made in Thailand and fresh flowers cut in Bolivia.

Indeed the electricity industry is quite rare today in remaining geographically divided.  With some exceptions it is illegal for a utility in one region to sell to customers in another.  There is effectively no such thing as national competition. There are, of course, many precedents for these legalized restraints on trade.  Banking used to be organized this way prior to reforms in the 1980s and 1990s.  Telecommunications after the breakup of Ma Bell but before the 1996 Telecom bill and development of national communications services was similarly organized by region.  In the case of electricity, besides the legal restraints on trade there are major physical restraints in the form of lack of capacity on the grid to move power where it is needed.

The absence of universal market allocation of power, means that decisionmaking--of what types of power to buy, what types of clean technology to implement and what types of infrastructure to build--is left, frequently to a small group of decisionmakers who are also incumbents and have a rational bias towards decisions supporting their incumbent position.  A transformative technology, for example, could reduce the value of their legacy assets.  Building a new transmission line to connect wind power to the grid, may make a plant they own obsolete.  It may therefore be entirely rational for them to discourage rather than encourage the deployment of new technology. 

It would be one thing if the decisionmakers were acting on their own.  However, typically they make decisions under the rate base system that provides a guaranteed rate of return on anything they can place in the rate base.  This would ordinarily incent them toward overinvestment.  However, since regulators oversee these rate cases and generally try to lower costs, the decisionmakers at utilities have a conflicting mandate to gain a high rate of return but also keep costs down.  This can lead to a bias toward investments that pay off immediately and against investments that pay off longer term.

The upshot is that getting the type of growth rates of renewables needed to unlock the economic and social potential of clean energy is likely to take more than economic incentives and mandates.  It may well require reform to remove obstacles to the deployment of new technology.

The energy bills now working their way through Congress contain some measures to address these problems.  But my research suggests more work needs to be done.

Obama, Calderon, and Harper Sound Cooperative Note on Trade, IP, Climate in Guadalajara

President Obama, President Calderon of Mexico, and Prime Minister Harper of Canada met in Guadalajara, Mexico, and, as is the standard procedure, yesterday released a joint statement. The leaders affirmed their commitments to trade, intellectual property, and a solution to climate change:

On IP:

We will cooperate in the protection of intellectual property rights to facilitate the development of innovative economies. We commend the progress achieved on reducing unnecessary regulatory differences and have instructed our respective Ministers to continue this work by building on the previous efforts, developing focused priorities and a specific timeline.

On trade:

North American trade is a vital component of our economic well-being and we pledge to abide by our international responsibilities and avoid protectionist measures. We reiterate our commitment to reinvigorate our trading relationship and to ensure that the benefits of our economic relationship are widely shared and sustainable. We will seek to promote respect for labour rights and protection of the environment with a continuing dialogue to address the functioning of the Labor and Environmental side agreements. This dialogue must result in mutually agreeable and cooperative activities with the aim to enhance the well-being and prosperity of our citizens and the economic recovery of our countries.

On Climate Change:

We recognize climate change as one of the most daunting and pressing challenges of our time and a solution requires ambitious and coordinated efforts by all nations. Building on our respective national efforts, we will show leadership by working swiftly and responsibly to combat climate change as a region and to achieve a successful outcome at the 15th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. We also recognize that the competitiveness of our region and our sustainable growth requires a greater reliance on clean energy technologies and secure and reliable energy supplies across North America. Today, in agreeing to the "North American Leaders’ Declaration on Climate Change and Clean Energy", we reaffirm our political commitment to work collaboratively to combat climate change.

The aforementioned agreement on climate can be found here. For more on trade policy, take a look at yesterday's GAO report on recent Free Trade Agreements.

Auctioning vs. Granting Carbon Credits

In this weekend's Sunday New York Times Greg Mankiw, the Harvard professor of economics, criticizes the cap and trade bill working its way through Congress for giving out instead of auctioning off many allowances.  Mankiw who in the past has supported a tax on carbon as a simpler alternative to a cap and trade system, correctly points out, quoting President Obama, that a cap and trade system that auctions allowances can resemble a carbon tax.  If the auction revenues are used to offset other taxes, as with a carbon tax, any negative effect of the regime on the economy can be minimized. 

He goes on, however, to make an oddly flawed argument that should not go uncorrected. 

Criticizing the House bill that gives away allowances to utilities in lieu of auctioning them off, he says this will harm the economy by requiring consumers to pay more without recapturing revenues that could be used to offset taxes. The current bill by encouraging "lower real take home wages, reduced work incentives and depressed economic activity", he argues, will harm the economy.

Not true.

To the degree allowances are handed out at the beginning, consumers as well as utilities are given a pass and do not have to pay more for energy.  Some inefficient producers who need to buy credits on the exchange may raise prices to consumers or earn less profits.  However, other efficient producers will receive income from selling credits, letting them lower prices or increase profits. The overall impact on the economy of a cap depends on the level of the cap.  If sufficiently low, everyone will have to invest in new technology to cut emissions.  If sufficiently high, no one will. 

The real difference between auctioning off and handing out allowances is the first sends a stronger, immediate price signal, while the latter sends a weaker one likely to kick in later. 

Auctioning the allowances, like a tax, is a transfer away from industry and consumers to the government.  At best, the government can return the money by, for example, cutting a different tax.  If it keeps the money, the auctions act like a fiscal drag.  In contrast, granting allowances postpones the economic impact.  (For the record, there are reasons one might want to put off pain: first the current economic slump and second, the fact that low carbon alterantives to current fuels are growing steadily cheaper, meaning the cost of cutting emissions may be lower in the future.)

I have argued that with a new president in office and Cophenhagen coming up next year, this is the year to pass climate change legislation.  The bill can be strengthened later.  Others may disagree.  However, while auctioning credits may make for a stronger signal than granting them, it will not reduce the impact on the economy. 

The Future of the American Car

This week the Center for Automotive Research in Detroit is holding its annual conference on the future of cars.  Entitled “Today's Turmoil: a Foundation for Success”, the four day conference allows the global industry to hear the insights of people like Akio Toyoda, the new president of Toyota who is shaking up the company started by his grandfather and discuss subjects such as manufacturing and how to make sustainable cars.  A new face this year: Ed Bloom of the US Auto Task Force in the role of the industry's new partner, government.

With global sales down almost 50% from their peak, it has, indeed, been a brutal year for the industry, especially so for the Big Three, now really One and a Half.   From this new low base, however, the industry is certain to rebound.  The question is whether it will rebound in America or whether the center of gravity of auto manufacturing will continue to shift away.  After the decades-old decline of the Big Three's market share, all the management studies and manufacturing initiatiaves, capped by GM and Chysler’s bankruptcy filings, some would argue the US industry is past recovery.  I disagree. 

I believe US carmakers can be part of the global rebound.  I also believe they must be if the US is to benefit from the clean economic revolution.  However, recovery of the industry won't come easy.   The US car industry needs to reinvent itself with help from policymakers and by listening to people outside the industry, especially the customer..  The good news it that auto manufacturing tends toward decentralization.  The weight of cars, variations in standards by country and a healthy measure of politics combines to encourage localized production.  There is no risk yet of a laptop-style shift of the entire industry to Asia.  The challenges are best described as severe but surmountable.  Here are six things the US auto industry needs to do to re-emerge in strong shape from the Great Recession of which government has a role in three:

First the industry needs to rediscover innovation.  In its glory days, passionate engineers invented new tires, transmissions, solutions to the problem of knock, the octane system of gasoline, ball bearings and other breakthrough technologies of the day, the equivalent of Twitter or Facebook or in the auto industry, new battery technologies, electric drive trains, carbon fiber materials, computerization, and energy economy technologies today.  One idea would be for US car companies to put venture capitalists from Silicon Valley or prominent scientists on their boards and move their R&D operations to Silicon Valley.   VC-backed Tesla, for example, is making major strides from its Palo Alto base. Palo Alto-based Better Place is similarly working with Renault and Nissan to pioneer new charging technology for an all electric car.  Cars are a technology product and it is time to remember this.  They are also a lifestyle product.  The Big Three should draw more design inspiration from places like New York and Los Angeles.  In its early days, GM had its headquarters in New York and it would behoove the industry to reconnect with centers of excellence across the country.

Second, the US car industry needs to recapture its ability to anticipate changes in consumer taste.  In My Years at General Motors, Alfred Sloan discussed how hard this always was, yet how essential: “Even though it takes years to develop a new product, it is our job to be ready with it when there is an effective demand”.  He was describing a problem that bedeviled the industry even in1957: a sudden desire by Americans for small cars—something in which the rest of the world even then excelled due to smaller streets, high priced gas and shorter distances—that caused imports to leap.  In that crisis, the Big Three responded with cars like the Corvair a year later to recapture the lower end of the market and bring imports from 10% back down to a negligible level.  The Big Three were far less successful after the oil shocks of the 1970s when imports began building market share.  They face an even sterner challenge in the wake of last year’s oil shock.  Message: be ready with small cars when they are needed.  And in the wake of climate change which is not going away: improve fuel efficiency.

Third, the US industry must try to reinvigorate its supplier base which has suffered even more than the OEMs in recent years.  A focused effort by industry to source locally and government support to high tech companies making batteries and other parts can help fuel the substrate necessary to a sound industry going forward.  Alan Mullaly at Ford is already shifting Ford toward greater outsourcing of parts.  To insure long term sustainability, it is important to rebuild the North American infrastructure.  As discussed below, this should be an element of negotiation with companies entering the US market.

Fourth, much has been made of the so-called cost disadvantage of the Big Three’s legacy costs which supposedly added $2,000 to the value of each car.  In fact, the appropriate way to deal with liabilities was always on the balance sheet as a capital item not as an operating one.  The GM and Chrysler bankruptcies put an end to much of this liability.  However, properly accounted for and written down, these legacy costs should be a footnote on the balance sheet, not a drag on operating profit..

Fifth, much has similarly been made of the supposedly high wages paid by US carmakers relative to foreign companies that have set up shop in the South.  While the gap is overstated, labor costs are lower in the South due to lower costs and the absence of unionization.  Here the US needs to act carefully but act on labor rules that have created an unfair playing field.  Due to our state system of regulation, the US has both right to work states and others where unionization is common.  Taking advantage of US federalism, foreign manufacturers even if their own countries are 100% union have set up shop in the South. A notable exception to this stratifaction is the unionized Toyota NUMMI facility in Fremont, California, where GM was a partner however, there is talk of Toyota closing that plant in the wake of GM’s pullout.

The answer to this is not heavy handed change in our federalist system.   However, as Bob Reich has argued, the US, as a whole, loses when states and even towns bid against one another for new factories.  He proposed a body or at least baseline standards to negotiate on behalf of American manufacturing sites.  It would not be unreasonable to require new factories to offer employees a chance to organize at some point after the plant is built, require some level of local sourcing of parts and at least try to negotiate for research and development investments.  Until other countries relax their standards for foreign investment, we should not give away the store.

Sixth, and here government is the critical player, the industry needs a reasonable exchange rate.  For about a quarter century, since the end of the 1982 recession, a high dollar has benefited our financial sector at the expense of manufacturing.  Something similar happened in England’s transition from manufacturing to finance capitalism in the late 19th Century when it shifted from a trade surplus to deficit (driving a quest for colonies.).  The dangers of over reliance on finance are clear.  Recently, Laura Tyson floated the idea of retooling our economy more toward investment and manufacturing in lieu of finance, in part, by lowering the value of the dollar.  Dollar policy is not something that is widely discussed or even understood yet it has an immense effect on the structure of our economy.  Perhaps like war it is too important to be left to the generals and should be the subject of an open and intellectually rigorous academic and industry discussion.

In short, cars will continue to be built in the United States.  The question is whether we will be leaders or followers, designing the breakthrough cars of the future, or building cars introduced somewhere else a few years earlier.

To this point, of the top 5 cars purchased under the Cash for Clunkers program, four bear Japanese nameplates.   (The rankings are Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Toyota Prius.)  Of these, all but the Prius are largely made in the United States and Toyota will begin making the Prius in Mississippi next year.  While Japanese, German and Korean investment in factories in the United States is a win win, creating jobs, economic activity and tax revenues, it does not amount to leadership. 

In conclusion, the US auto industry faces huge challenges.  But the bottom of a cycle creates opportunity and the decks are now clear for a rebound.  It was not long ago that the US industries—after suffering through the 1980s--mounted a partial comeback, improving quality and inventing breakthrough products of the day such as the minivan and SUV—formats soon copied by others.  US industry and policymakers should begin taking action now to lead recovery when it inevitably comes.


Jack Hidary at NDN Event on Cash for Clunkers

With the Senate considering refilling (sorry) the funds for "Cash for Clunkers," here's a video of clean-tech entreprenuer Jack Hidary speaking about such a program last year at an NDN Green Project event on "Energy and the American Way of Life." Jack calls the proposal "Jack's Jalopy Law," but it's the same idea.

California "Always" Liberal? Ross Douthat Must Be Dreaming

In yesterday's New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat accuses President Obama of "pushing a blue-state agenda during a recession that’s exposed some of the blue-state model’s weaknesses, and some of the red-state model’s strengths."

Asking readers to consider California, which he places against the stellar conservative governance of Texas, Douthat notes:

California, always liberalism's favorite laboratory, was passing global-warming legislation, pouring billions into stem-cell research, and seemed to be negotiating its way toward universal health care.

(his link points to a Time article about Arnold Schwarzenegger's work in this area, who, last I checked, has an R and a 28 percent in state approval rating next to his name)

While California is undoubtedly a national leader in trends of all stripes, understanding the legacy of California governance as being "liberalism's favorite laboratory," couldn't be more wrong. The reasons for California's epic struggles lie, not in the "always liberalism" that Douthat sees, but instead in the Ronald Reagan conservative tax revolt coming home to roost.

In contrast to, say, California's efforts on energy policy, which research shows have created prosperity in the state over the last generation, the tax revolt defining Proposition 13 destroyed a top notch public schools system and, more recently, rendered the state bankrupt. The 1978 ballot initiative, which capped property taxes and mandated a 2/3 rule for the state legislature to pass a budget, has created a structural shortfall in the state budget and a political inability for legislators to craft a solution -- but Douthat doesn't see fit to mention it.

Conservatives love to argue that California has incredibly high tax rates, and, in the case of some specific taxes, that's true. But that's only because Proposition 13 so drastically lowered property taxes as to necessitate raising taxes to compensate for lost revenue. As Ezra Klein, in discussing Robert Samuelson's op-ed on California (which, like Douthat's piece, conspicuously fails to mention Prop 13), notes this morning:

Total state and local taxes take up 11.73 percent of the average Californian's income. The national average is 11.23 percent. And it's been like that for many years:


Far from being "always" liberal, California's electoral votes were supposed to be safe for Reagan's Republicans, giving them a generational lock on the White House. Here again, California was ahead of the nation, this time in discovering that conservatives couldn't govern and is now as deep blue as the Pacific Ocean.

Now that the nation has learned its lesson from eight years of red-state governance under Douthat's vaunted Texas leadership, America followed California, this time for the better, in overwhelmingly rejecting failed conservative governance. Blue-staters (a lot of folks these days) have only had six months on the job after eight years of botched "red-state" governance. It will be a lot longer than that if conservatives like Douthat can't even figure out where they went wrong; Proposition 13 was certainly one of the first places.

Update: Ezra Klein just blogged on Douthat's column as well. He does a nice job taking down the argument that Texas is a good model for anything and the broader red-blue frame that Douthat tries to use.

More Cash For Clunkers

The extraordinary success of the Cash for Clunkers program--$1 billion worth of credits dispensed in about a week--is an outstanding validation of the power of green stimulus that we at NDN began championing at the beginning of last year.  Not only is the cash for clunkers program a win for the environment--about 250,000 clunkers will come off the road, replaced by the same number of fuel efficient cars, the program has provided a shot in the arm to the beleaguered auto industry and also put $1 billion of stimulus out onto the street when we need it.  You might call it a win, win, win: a victory for the environment, auto manufacturing and the broader economy.

The program is so successful that Congress should dramatically extend it.  As a thought exercise imagine what would have happened had Congress enacted a $10 billion program at the beginning of the year that might have sold 2.5 million cars--about the number that the auto industry would have needed over the last six months to be profitable.  It might have put the auto companies into the black and possibly avoided the GM and Chrysler bankrtupcies and billions in taxpayer support. 

While it's too late to turn back the clock, it's not too late to extend the program--perhaps quadrupling it to $4 billion as Congressman Ed Markey has suggested, with the goal of replacing a million jalopies.  An extra $3 billion is worth it, in my view, to improve fuel efficiency, to protect the taxpayer's investments in GM and Chrysler and as quick stimulus now.

What To Do About China

Yesterday, the US and China concluded high level talks between Secretaries Geithner and Clinton and China's State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Vice Premier Wang Qishan on the relationship that President Obama said, at the outset of meetings, will define the 21st century.  The President is right.  How the US and China manage their relationship will determine the balance of growth and contraction, war and peace and freedom and its opposite in the 21st Century.  This then was an important set of meetings raising the deeper question of what should the US do about China.

China's rocket-like growth over the last decade has been extraordinary. However, beyond the sparkling towers, new roads and designer airports lies the fact that China's rise has inextricably altered the economic and diplomatic balance of power of the 20th century.  According to economist Steven Roach, China's growth alone is likely to keep global growth above zero this year.  China, America's largest creditor, holds about $2 trillion in US dollar debt, an amount growing daily. To put that sum in perspective, the entire balance sheet of the US Federal Reserve prior to the financial crisis was less than $1 trillion.  China is quite simply rocking the global economy.

Rapidly emerging powers, by definition, alter the status quo and in prior epochs success or failure in accommodating that change has proven critical to global stability.  At the end of the 19th century, Europe mismanaged the rise in power of Germany which (with Bismarck's dismissal by the erratic Wilhelm II) contributed to World War I.  Then in the early 20th century, the world failed to recognize Japan's emergence as a major power after she defeated Russia in 1905 and began building airplanes capable of crossing the Pacific.  In contrast, through the post war framework of the Bretton Woods institutions including the GATT, the Bank for International Settlements (designed to lessen exchange rate imbalances), the IMF and the World Bank and the UN as well as the European Union and other organizations, the world did a much better job of accommodating the rise of Japan, the NICs and the peripheral European states at the end of the 20th Century.

Now, with China's emergence, however, the world faces a new rebalancing of political and economic power.  And the task, as President Obama suggested, is to manage it in a way that benefits the US, China and the world.  

Economic theory--in contrast to the popular notion of competing nations--teaches that one country's rise should benefit others.  A richer China should consume more US goods.  It should produce more and through spillovers and the creation of knowledge, contribute to the global commons. 

One country, moreover, cannot succeed as China has without others.  China remains dependent on the US as the major market for its exports.  In some ways the US China relationship is deeply symbiotic.  We design goods.  China makes them cheaply.  We buy them, allowing US consumers to get more for less.  However, to the extent that the Chinese consistently sell more to us than we buy--as a result of the Yuan being kept artificially low, America gets more stuff but loses industry, China gets less stuff but gains industry and China ends up holding US dollar denominated debt.  That is the story of our recent relationship in a nutshell.  Chinese economic officials, waking up their huge exposure to the value of the US dollar, have scolded the US about its deficits which could weaken the dollar and have floated the idea of diversifying into other currencies.  The threat to unseat the dollar as the world's reserve currency is a serious shot across our bow.  Besides these economic issues, other matters on the table in Washington this week included nuclear proliferation and climate change.

In many ways, China in its economic strategy has followed the same trajectory of Japan and the other Asian tigers.  She has pursued a policy of export-oriented growth leveraging her low cost base built on the four pillars of a cheap currency, high savings financed through suppressed consumption, an aggressive state role in the economy, and a policy of securing technology transfer for market access.  The strategy is neo-mercantilist which is to say, its practical effect is to generate a trade surplus and accumulate hard currency.  (The original mercantilism practiced in Europe prized trade surpluses to accumulate gold and silver.) 

However, China's story is qualitatively different than that of Japan and the NICs in certain respects.  First, on the political track, beginning as a Communist country, China has, so far, not followed South Korea and the other NICs toward authoritarian democracy.  China remains a totalitarian police state. And second, she is simply larger in scale and scale changes everything.  Long before China reaches western standards of living, her overall GDP will be the largest in the world.  And, unlike the other Asian NICs, she is so large and her labor supply so abundant that her cost of labor can stay low even as her exchange rate appreciates.

On the political side, China does not appear aggressive in foreign policy.  Like the 19th Century resource-hungry European powers, she has been courting natural resources in Africa to fuel production.  However, she has pursued a commercial as opposed to political strategy.  While she is a nuclear power, she appears more preoccupied with economic growth currently than military objectives.

In many ways, the relationship with the US has proven beneficial for both.  An example of positive symbiosis would be the manufacture of the Apple iPhone.  Designed in the US, it is made in China by a company called Foxconn.  Both the US and China benefit from the success of the iPhone.  As an example of the political and human pitfalls of the relationship, however, one can point to the case of a Foxconn employee recently hounded to the point of defenestration by police and company security after he lost an iPhone prototype. Afterward, Apple issued a statement saying it was awaiting results of an investigation into the employee's death.

The US China meeting this week made no news on the issue of climate change or nuclear proliferation, a complex initiative that will take time.  The principle outcome was that the US pledged to work to lower US budget deficits to protect the value of the dollar and China pledged to increase domestic demand.

With respect to the US concession, the very fact that the US had to apologize for our deficits shows how the balance of power in the relationship has changed.  As for the Chinese concession, it is indeed the right policy for the US and China to pursue.  As a result of the massive stimulus package enacted in China of close to $600 billion, some 88% of China's GDP growth this year will occur in investment, much of it in infrastructure.  Most of the rest of the growth will come from exports.  Virtually none will come from consumption and increased living standards for the Chinese people.  This must change.  By allowing its people to consume more and buy more of the world's products, China can help its own people live better and the rest of world produce more.

For its part, the US has to stop living beyond its means which means borrowing less both to fund government and imports.  That will put the US back on track toward more sustainable growth.

Economically, what remains unresolved is the depressed Yuan which continues to drive the Chinese trade surplus and the US deficit.  Clearly the Yuan has to appreciate to the point where US goods are competitive with Chinese ones.  The US should exert its negotiating leverage sooner rather than later on this point because the more US debt China accumulates, the worse the negotiating position of the US will become. 

The one issue not explicitly on the table--apart from sympathy expressed by the US toward Chinese minorities--but that ultimately must underscore our relationship with China is how Chinese success will impact the US commitment to freedom and democracy.

The strategy not only of the US but of the West in general has been to encourage economic growth in China while hoping this will lead to greater freedoms.  This policy of engagement as opposed to containment is  the right strategy for now because it would be absurd for the US to disengage when China is moving in the right direction. However, China has moved far more slowly than many hoped and the US posture toward China has, all too often lacked even a semblance of muscularity. 

The US has been a poor or non existent negotiator on behalf of US companies in standing up for values we hold dear such as freedom of expression.  The government has left companies such as Google and Yahoo to cut individual deals with the Chinese to gain market access.  Our government has also been missing in action when it comes to allowing companies to negotiate away technology in exchange for access to the Chinese market.  The US could be doing far more to strengthen the negotiating position of US-based companies which ultimately would benefit not only us but the Chinese people by widening their access to goods and information.

President Obama is right that the US China relationship will be critical to shaping the 21st century.  And ultimately, this is about accomodating China's rise without sacrificing America's values or our standard of living.  This week's meeting was a useful first step.  Still problematic, however, are the huge trade imbalances resulting from an exchange rate imbalance and China's negotiating position toward US firms that is far tougher than ours in the opposite direction  As we go forward, we should accelerate action to move the two countries toward a truly sustainable, long term partnership.

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