Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s Plan to Put Foreign Investors First

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s Plan to Put Foreign Investors First

March 29, 2017

The “Border Adjustment Tax” (BAT) endorsed recently by President Trump is his administration’s first foray into international economics. It is an inauspicious start.

BAT advocates like House Speaker Paul Ryan promise it will cut the trade deficit by making U.S. exports cheaper abroad and foreign imports more expensive here. The truth is, a BAT won’t much affect U.S. exports or imports, and it certainly won’t create jobs. It would produce a large stream of new federal revenues, and it could trigger retaliatory tariffs on some U.S. exports. A BAT also would enrich a great many foreign investors and companies, and leave a lot of American investors and large companies poorer. All told, it’s the kind of “bad deal” that Mr. Trump once railed against.

Mr. Trump and Speaker Ryan never mentioned a BAT until recently, and the reason they like it now is that it’s a cash cow to pay for their sharp cuts in corporate taxes. The Trump-Ryan BAT would give U.S. producers a 20 percent rebate on the wholesale price of any goods or services they export – 20 percent, because that’s the GOP’s preferred corporate tax rate – and impose a 20 percent tax on foreign goods and services imported here from abroad. It would raise trillions of dollars, because we import about $500 billion more per-year than we export.

For conservatives at least, all those revenues should be a red flag. In a populist period, a subsequent President and Congress may well decide to raise corporate taxes — and when they do, the BAT’s fat revenue stream could well go to fund progressive causes.

Mr. Trump still has no Council of Economic Advisers, so maybe he believes that a BAT will spur U.S. exports and create jobs. Even Peter Navarro should to be able to tell him why that won’t happen. At first, a BAT would strengthen demand for U.S. exports and weaken demand for foreign imports here. But those shifts in demand would quickly strengthen the dollar and weaken foreign currencies, perhaps enough to offset the BAT’s initial impact on import and export prices. In theory, the currency movements triggered by the changes in prices brought about by the BAT should restore pre-BAT prices for both imports and exports, so the only change would be a lot of new revenues from taxing net imports.

In practice, the BAT’s impact on the dollar and U.S. trade is a roll of the dice. As Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen noted recently, no one knows how closely the currency changes will mirror the BAT’s direct effects on prices. If they overshoot, U.S. consumers will pay more for imports; if they undershoot, U.S. export prices won’t fall much. On top of that, no one knows how much of the BAT tax U.S. importers will pass along to American consumers, and how much of the BAT rebates U.S. exporters will pass along to their foreign customers. Finally, painful retaliation might follow, since China and others won’t take kindly to paying a 20 percent tariff on their exports to the United States, and China’s competitors won’t like the BAT’s substantial devaluation in the yuan-dollar exchange rate.

One effect is certain: The BAT will harm U.S. investors and reward foreign investors as the currency changes reduce the dollar value of U.S.-owned assets abroad and increase the foreign-currency value of foreign-owned assets here. The Bureau of Economic Analysis tells us that in the second quarter of 2016, Americans held foreign stocks, corporate and government bonds, and derivatives worth $12.9 trillion; and foreign-owned financial assets in the United States totaled $20.3 trillion.

If we assume the Trump-Ryan BAT leads to a 20 percent increase in the value of the dollar and a corresponding 20 percent decline in the trade-weighted value of foreign currencies, it would reduce the value of U.S.-held financial investments abroad by nearly $2.5 trillion and increase the value of foreign-owned financial investments here by more than $4 trillion. What kind of deal is that, Mr. President?

The trillion-dollar losers will include U.S. investors in European or Asian mutual funds; U.S. companies with profitable foreign subsidiaries, from Microsoft and Facebook to Coca Cola and Pfizer; and U.S. banks that lend to foreign companies. The trillion-dollar winners will include foreign investors with U.S. mutual funds; foreign companies with major American subsidiaries, from Toyota and Anheuser Busch to Unilever and Phillips; and foreign banks who lend to U.S. companies.

Perhaps the best motto for the Trump-Ryan BAT is “Put Foreign Investors First.”

Robert J. Shapiro, chairman of the economic and security advisory firm Sonecon, was Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs in the Clinton administration. In the 2016 campaign, he advised Hillary Clinton.

 



The Trump and Clinton Foundations Are Character Tests that Hillary Clinton Passes and Donald Trump Fails 

September 14, 2016

Donald Trump’s charge that Hillary Clinton used her office as Secretary of State to service donors of the Clinton Foundation exemplifies a regular Trump tactic: Preemptively charge your opponent with what you know you’ve done.

So, fully aware that his own family foundation is a shoe-string operation that breached IRS regulations, or worse; Trump and his surrogates charged for months that the Clinton Foundation’s funding and works are proof of corruption. No disinterested party found any such proof.

Instead, a review of the dimensions and operations of the two foundations suggest that the Clintons built a serious and effective philanthropic enterprise while Trump’s foundation is a sham.

To start, the creation and funding of a private foundation can provide a measure of its founder’s generosity, because virtually all family foundations involve substantial gifts from their founders. Public records do show that the Clintons have contributed $5 million to $10 million, or roughly five to ten percent of their personal assets, since establishing their foundation 15 years ago.

According to a far-reaching  new investigation by David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, Trump also contributed some $5.5 million to his foundation from 1987 to 2008. What does this say about their relative generosity? Trump says he’s worth $10 billion, so he has contributed .00055 percent of his personal assets — that’s 55 one-thousandths of one percent — to the Trump Foundation.

By contrast, the Clintons have contributed roughly five to ten percent of their personal assets to the Clinton Foundation. So, the Clintons have been 90 times more generous than Trump in funding their respective family foundations.

The Clintons’ charitable ambitions also are orders of magnitude greater than Trump’s. In 2013, the Trump Foundation provided grants totaling $913,000 for good works, while the Clinton Foundation spent $196 million on its good works. Do the math: The Clinton Foundation spent 215 times as much as the Trump Foundation on charitable works. This huge difference has import beyond their respective founders’ benevolent aspirations, because private foundations are major sources of public goods and welfare.

In 2008, a colleague and I published the first broad analysis of the benefits generated by private foundations, and found that each dollar in grants and support by those foundations produced welfare benefits valued at $8.58. On this basis, the Clinton Foundation grants and operations in 2013 helped generate benefits totaling nearly $1.7 billion, compared to $7.8 million in benefits generated by the Trump Foundation.

Another meaningful measure of a foundation’s value is the nature of its activities. The Clinton Foundation is known best for its Health Access initiative,  which, according to the World Health Organization and others, has dramatically cut the cost of HIV and anti-malarial treatments for tens of millions of sufferers in low- and middle-income countries.

The Clinton Foundation also sponsors programs to reduce the risks of climate change, including partnerships with businesses to retrofit their building for green energy; a joint initiative with the Scottish Hunter Foundation to target the roots of poverty in Africa; an alliance with the American Heart Association and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation to reduce childhood obesity; disaster relief efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; and a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to collect and compile information from around the world on the status of women. The head of the independent watchdog group Charity Watch, Daniel Borochoff, recently called the Clinton Foundation “one of America’s great humanitarian charities.”

The Trump Foundation reports no joint initiatives with other charitable organizations and few good works of any kind.  Instead, Trump’s foundation appears to be mainly a personal platform for its founder.

Fahrenthold’s investigation  found repeated instances of Trump soliciting funds from other foundations, a common charitable fundraising tactic. But Trump then used the funds donated to the Trump Foundation to make a donation in the name of the Trump Foundation, without adding any funds or operations of its own. In fact, all Trump Foundation grants since 2008 have been funded by others, because Trump himself has contributed nothing to his own foundation for the plast eight years.

Trump also appears to use his novel approach to philanthropy for his own personal profit: He solicited a $150,000 donation from the Charles Evans Foundation to benefit the Palm Beach Police Foundation, packaged it as a $150,000 grant from the Trump Foundation, arranged for the police foundation to receive the grant at a gala held at his Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, and then charged the police foundation $276,463 to rent Mar-A-Lago for the event.

Similarly, after Trump offered to personally donate $500,000 to charities highlighted on his “Celebrity Apprentice” television show, NBC/Universal which airs the program, donated $500,000 to the Trump Foundation to cover Trump’s “personal” pledges. Trump also appears to violate federal regulation of foundation by using foundation funds for personal benefit: The Trump Foundation paid $20,000 for a six-foot portrait of Trump that now hangs at one of his gold resorts; after Melania Trump bid on and won the painting at a charity auction held, of course, at Mar-A-Lago.

There is also the much-reported case of Trump’s foundation contributing $25,000 to the campaign of Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi while Bondi’s office was investigating consumer complaints about Trump University.  Shortly there]after, A.G. Bondi declined to join other state attorneys general in a suit against the now-defunct Trump University.  Beyond the Trump Foundation’s direct breach of IRS regulations, for which it paid a nominal fine, the conduct fairly smacks of the pay-for-play corruption that Trump charges his opponent has committed.

Finally, Fahrenthold found five cases where the Trump Foundation claims it made donations, totaling $51,000, which the purported beneficiaries say they never received. The subjects of this trick included a veterans’ charity in Vermont, a pro-life nonprofit in Kansas, a Latino AIDs charity in New York, a children’s medical center in Omaha, and an umbrella organization for small charities in Los Angeles.

In the end, the questions raised about the Trump and Clinton foundations go to the character of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Hillary and Bill Clinton have built an esteemed charitable foundation that has improved and saved the lives of millions of people around the world. Donald Trump has created a con, inveigling others to finance him play-acting as a philanthropist, and turning a profit for himself in the bargain.



Bloomberg’s Education Reforms Will Be His Legacy

December 17, 2013

As Michael Bloomberg prepares his exit as New York City’s mayor, a new analysis suggests that his signature reforms of public education will comprise much of his legacy. Unsurprisingly, the reason is hard economics. Under his reforms, the share of NYC youths earning their high school diplomas and the share going on to college both rose sharply. For some 71,000 young New Yorkers, the “income premiums” associated with those improvements should add more than $15 billion to their lifetime incomes — and the benefits are not limited to those students. The study also found that home property values rose substantially in the neighborhoods where schools improved the most, by as much as $60 billion.

I conducted the study with my colleague Kevin Hassett, in conjunction with The Fund for Public Schools. We focused on changes in three objective measures of student performance: test scores by NYC public school students on statewide tests, high school graduation rates, and rates of college attendance.

We started with the test scores on statewide tests, to see if those scores tracked the improvements in graduation and college attendance rates. With other researchers, we found that they did: From 2006 to 2012, the “mean scale” scores of NYC students on English Language Arts tests rose two percent, twice the gains of all students across New York State. Similarly, NYC students’ scores on the statewide mathematics tests increased four percent, compared to a three percent gain across the State. Moreover, students from the poorest parts of the City, the Bronx and Brooklyn, showed the greatest improvements.

Students from low-income, minority backgrounds also account for much of the improvements in high-school graduation rates. From 2006 to 2012, the four-year graduation rate of NYC students increased from 49 percent to more than 60 percent, a jump of 23 percent. Progress by African-American and Hispanic students drove much of those increases. From 2006 to 2012, graduation rates for African-American students increased from less than 43 percent to 55 percent, a 28 percent jump. Similarly, the graduation rates of Hispanic students rose from 40 percent to nearly 53 percent, a 31 percent improvement.

It hardly bears repeating that students who graduate high school earn substantially higher incomes throughout the working lives than those who drop out. Economists use those differences to calculate the “net present value” of a high school diploma — the value in today’s dollars of the additional income which, on average, they will earn over their lifetimes. Today, that net present value comes to $218,000. Using 2006 graduation rates as our reference, we calculated that from 2008 to 2012, 41,000 more NYC public high school students earned their diplomas than would have occurred if the same share of students had graduated as in 2006. That tells us that the improvements in graduation rates under the Bloomberg reforms will raise their lifetime earnings by nearly $9 billion.

Similarly, from 2008 to 2012, nearly 31,000 more NYC public school students enrolled in institutions of higher learning than would have occurred if the college enrollment rates of NYC students in 2006 had persisted. To calculate the net present value of the additional lifetime income all of the additional NYC students who enrolled in college, compared to ending their educations with a high school diploma, we tracked the income differences, less the average cost of college tuition and their foregone income while in college. We found that the lifetime value of enrolling in college comes to $207,000, in today’s dollars – which tells us that the net present value of the additional income that the additional 31,000 NYC college attendees will earn comes to $6. 4 billion. On top of the income gains derived from higher high-school graduation rates, this suggests that improvements in student performance under Bloomberg’s reforms should raise the lifetime earnings of NYC students by some $15 billion.

Better schools also are associated with higher property values, so we tested whether these improvements had those effects in New York City. Using a technique that tests for statistical causality, called the “Granger Causality” test, we analyzed the relationship between changes in NYC property values by zip code, covering 94 NYC zip codes, and changes in graduation rates in those zip codes. It showed that each one percent improvement in the graduation rates in a zip code led to a 0. 53 percent increase in residential property values in that zip code, in the following year. On this basis, we estimate that NYC’s rising graduation rates from 2008 to 2012 have added more than $37 billion to the total value of NYC residential housing.

We also explored whether New York’s major expansion of charter schools has had economic effects. At a basic level, Bloomberg’s strategy granted schools and their principals much greater autonomy — and large funding increases to accompany it — in exchange for greater accountability for the results. The reforms also expanded school choice for NYC public school students, and then enhanced those choices by adding nearly 200 new public charter schools. This combination of greater accountability and enhanced choice intensified competition for students among schools, especially since funding follows the students.

While two national studies have found that across the country, charter schools do not outperform other public schools, three recent studies of NYC concluded that students at those schools perform better than students at other City public schools. We tested whether Bloomberg’s expansion of charter schools also has affected property values in the City, independent of changes in graduation rates. We found that across nearly 200 NYC zip codes, the addition of one new NYC charter schools in a zip code led to a 3. 8 percent increase in residential property prices in that zip code in the following year. Based on the expansion of those schools in this period, the results suggest that the charter-school reforms have added more than $22 billion to NYC residential property values. On top of the boost in property values tied to higher graduation rates, these results suggest that Bloomberg’s reforms have added nearly $60 billion to NYC residential property values.

Across the country, the record of educational reforms is mixed. Nevertheless, by several objective measures, the academic performance of New York City public school students has improved markedly under the reforms enacted since 2002. Moreover, those improvements can be expected to generate large income benefits for tens of thousands of New York City students, and they already have produced substantial economic benefits for New York City homeowners. These achievements deserve emulation. 



Are Republican Leaders Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

October 1, 2013

With a good part of the federal government closed for business, the pathologies driving it are too obvious to ignore. The diagnosis begins with the fact that there is no partisan argument this time about overall federal spending. The White House and congressional Democrats have simply accepted the arbitrary cuts of the sequester process, despite evidence that they’re slowing the economy. So instead, the rightwing of the House GOP is holding normal government operations hostage to a variety of demands tied to the Affordable Care Act.

Now, Obamacare has been a central focus of the Tea Partiers since 2010, when its passage helped elect a number of them to Congress. But three years later, their continuing single-mindedness about those reforms looks like a pathological obsession. Too strong? Their threats to close down Washington unless the President agrees to sacrifice his signature achievement — and their confidence that they can bend him to their will — have been unaffected by not only the 2012 elections, but also the prevailing consensus that their strategy will cost the GOP even more in 2014.

This week, the pathology has spread to the Republican leadership. Since Tea Party members make up less than one-quarter of the House GOP and an even smaller share of the Senate, they always need support from their more moderate colleagues and Party leaders to carry out their threats. Those leaders and colleagues have long argued publicly against the Tea Party strategy — that is, until this past weekend. After months of being held hostage themselves to Tea Party threats of insurrection and primary challenge, House Speaker Boehner, Senate Minority Leader McConnell and most of their associates have now identified with their captors and adopted their worldview. In short, they’re suffering from a political version of “Stockholm Syndrome.” If they don’t recover quickly, much of the national government could remain closed for a long time.



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

October 24, 2011

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.



Grading Obama and the GOP Hopefuls on their Plans for Jobs and the Economy

September 12, 2011

Last week’s GOP debate at the Reagan Library, followed the next night by the President’s address to Congress, threw into stark relief the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s understanding of jobs and the economy. The Republican hopefuls get a gentleman’s C on the impact of regulation on economic activity. But their approaches to the overall economy and job creation ranged from silly to dangerous, and earn them all F’s. The President has to produce results, and his ideas aren’t constrained by primary challengers. This may help explain why his approaches are broader and more thoughtful, earning him a solid B on the overall economy and an A-minus on job creation.

All of the Republican hopefuls — the two leaders Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, the so-serious minded Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, and the media-infatuated Michelle Bachmann and the rest — agreed on one economic prescription: Apply deep and immediate budget cuts to an economy generating little growth and no jobs. This common position not only defies the basic dynamics of supply and demand in a slow economy. It also rejects the policies of the last five GOP presidents. After all, it was true-blue conservatives Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who justified big spending increases for defense and big tax cuts to boost the flagging economies of their own times.   

Nor are the Republican wanna-be’s chastened by the current examples of Germany, France and Britain, which all embarked on austerity programs this year while the European Central Bank (ECB) raised EU interest rates. The results have been even more anemic growth than our own. In fact, the two GOP frontrunners along with the inimitable Mr. Paul not only demanded deep spending cuts, but also sided with the ECB by denouncing Fed chairman Ben Bernanke as an inveterate inflationist. The markets they all claim to worship don’t see it that way, since our long-term interest rates remain near record lows. For their determined contempt of introductory macroeconomics, all of the GOP putative presidents flunk.

The current President at least appreciates that this economy needs a boost, not more headwinds. His package adds $450 billion over 12 months, in theory adding new demand equal to 3 percentage points of GDP. In practice, it would work out to be less than that, since people will save some of the money they gain from lower payroll taxes, and some of the tax cuts for businesses won’t be taken up. The administration also gets credit for recognizing that the sick housing market is a critical piece of the puzzle behind the slow economy. Their answer, however, misses the most basic point: Mr. Obama called for expediting Fannie Mae refinancings to put more money in the pockets of some homeowners. But that won’t affect the more economically consequential, high foreclosure rates that have been pushing down housing values, and so dampening people’s willingness to spend. On balance, give the President’s economic team a solid B on the overall economy.

Both sides also call for tax cuts to spur job creation. All of the GOP candidates, however, would focus on cutting corporate taxes. Now, most economists agree that the corporate tax cries out for reforms, especially a lower marginal rate tied to ending distorting tax breaks for favored industries.  But no reputable economist who doesn’t aspire to a top position in the next GOP administration has found that those reforms would have noticeable effects on jobs in any short or medium-term. With large U.S. businesses already holding some $1 trillion in banked profits, by what economic logic would additional tax cuts move them to create jobs?

The only route from this GOP position to new jobs depends on lower corporate taxes translating into higher dividends, mainly for the very affluent, which they would then spend, boosting demand. Even so, much of those additional dividends probably would be saved, which wouldn’t create any jobs under today’s conditions. Moreover, the GOP hopefuls also insist on spending cuts to offset any lower corporate tax revenues — and that would mean job losses. For their resolute ignorance of labor economics and public finance, these hopefuls score another F.

President Obama’s tax plan is both more detailed and better targeted to creating jobs — which should be unsurprising, given how much he has riding on near-term results. He would reduce the cost to businesses of creating new jobs and maintaining their current workers. To do this, he would temporarily suspend the employer side of the payroll tax for new hires by firms with about 1,000 employees or less, and temporarily cut by half all employer-side payroll taxes for firms with about 100 workers or less. This strategy is eminently sensible — and downright brilliant compared to the broad corporate tax cut championed by the Republican hopefuls. Full disclosure: I’ve urged the administration to propose cutting the employer side of the payroll tax since December 2009, including eleven times in these blog essays.

The decision to limit these new tax incentives to small and medium-size companies is less than ideal, since big businesses employ nearly half of all workers. On the other hand, big businesses are sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars in banked profits, so they clearly have the means to hire more workers. On balance, these proposals deserve an A-minus.

The same score goes to the President’s call for more direct, job-related spending. This includes new funds for the states to prevent more layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters; new support for school construction; and additional investments in infrastructure (through a National Infrastructure Bank). More problematic are the jobs benefits from other parts of the plan, including support for expanded access to high-speed wireless and public-private partnerships to rehab homes and businesses. There’s also little direct jobs benefit in the administration’s otherwise-laudable plans to reform the unemployment insurance system and bar employers from discriminating in hiring against long-term jobless people. All told, another A-minus.

The Republican hopefuls have time to develop better strategies for growth and jobs, especially compared to their current dismal positions. They’ll have to play catch-up, however, because President Obama has proposed a sound new jobs agenda. And if congressional Republicans refuse to work with him on it, the public will know whom to blame.

 



The Best Advice for the President: Think Big and Move On

August 10, 2011

In good times, a President without clear economic policies may not suffer for it. But in shaky and uncertain times like today, failing to advance a coherent strategy to ease people’s genuine economic troubles can be fatal politically, for a president or his opponent. Yet, it happens with some regularity, often because the candidate simply prefers to talk about foreign policy or other things. Consider the first George Bush in 1992, dismissing people’s economic worries to return again and again to his Gulf War success. Think of John McCain in 2008, with no plan to stem the financial meltdown but eager to talk about his opponent’s character failings. And reaching further back, there was George McGovern decrying the Viet Nam War, but with little to say about the inflation and slow growth.

Both parties will certainly have economic programs for 2012. Yet, both parties are in danger of passing lightly over the core issues of jobs, housing values, and incomes. The problem for the Republican nominee is the Tea Party, which may well force him or her to embrace its radical bromides. That assumes, of course, that the GOP doesn’t nominate Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman, who won’t need to be convinced. Whoever the nominee is, he or she will have to stand for abolishing the minimum wage. On the budget, the nominee will have to support moving Medicare towards vouchers with spending caps that don’t take account of health care costs, and a balanced budget amendment that won’t take account of recessions. The nominee also will have to stand for the repeal of Wall Street regulation and more tax cuts to frost the cake of the rich.

This prospect presents President Obama with two choices. He can run against the Tea Party platform and insist that a minimalist approach is preferable to the other side’s eccentric agenda. One catch is that the GOP nominee almost certainly will have a “Sister Souljah” moment when he ostentatiously distances himself from some loony piece of the Tea Party platform. (My personal favorite is the call to abolish our “fiat” currency and revive the long, well-buried gold standard.)  And if the GOP nominee can weave a story about how a balanced budget and less government will help create jobs and restore housing values, and repeat that story often enough, it could be sufficient to trump Democratic minimalism.

But the President has another choice. He can offer up a new program of “Big Ideas” that directly takes on jobs, stagnating incomes, housing values, and the nation’s debt. The conventional wisdom is that this is too risky, because it would tacitly acknowledge that his first-term program didn’t deliver the prosperity his economic team promised. But since everyone in the country is already aware that it didn’t deliver as promised, acknowledging it would be a small concession.

To be sure, the Tea Party-dominated House probably wouldn’t pass anything that Obama proposes before the election. The economy will get a little more support from the Fed, but essentially will be on its own. Nevertheless, the President can lay a foundation for stronger job and income gains in a second term — if he’s reelected — by campaigning for a new economic program.

With persistent, high unemployment, Obama needs to show that he knows how to reduce the costs for businesses to create new jobs and preserve old ones. One direct way to do that would be to cut the employer side of the payroll tax by half, and then he could propose to pay for it through tax reforms that include a carbon-based tax to help address climate change. He also can show that he knows how to help create new, small businesses which, in turn, will create new jobs. Since our major financial institutions have largely stopped providing credit to small entrepreneurs, he could propose a new government-sponsored enterprise that could float bonds for community banks to finance those business loans.

The biggest obstacle to a stronger recovery remains the sick housing market. Nearly two-thirds of American households, in effect, grow poorer every month as the values of their homes decline and, with it, any equity they built up. And people who feel they’re becoming poorer don’t spend, which in turn keeps this recovery anemic. The best leverage we have to stop the decline in housing prices is to bring down home foreclosure rates. The President can show he knows how to do that too, by proposing a new temporary loan program for homeowners with mortgages in trouble. To be sure, this is treacherous territory, politically and economically, since it could enrage homeowners who don’t qualify and induce moral hazard for those who do. But the President can address both problems with some tough love. Homeowners who receive the loans would be on the hook not only to pay them back. On top of that, 10 percent of any capital gains from an eventual home sale could go back to the taxpayers.

Finally, the President can show that he knows how to help Americans prepare for the new jobs that the rest of his program would help create. Nearly half of all working people age 35 and over today still have only the most rudimentary computer skills, leaving them unprepared to perform well in most 21st century jobs. The President could propose a new grant program for community colleges that will keep their computer labs open and staffed in the evenings and on weekends: Any adult would be able to walk in and receive IT training at no personal cost.

This program won’t assuage the Tea Party’s followers — in fact, it will likely incense them. Let’s hope so. The President should welcome a debate — okay, a pitched battle — over a genuine and understandable strategy to improve the lives of Americans. Even if unemployment is still well over 8 percent, a serious plan to bring it down should trump the grab bag of far-right nostrums that passes for policy in the Tea Party.



President Obama Wins the First Round with Paul Ryan

April 14, 2011

Yesterday’s presidential address on fiscal policy was a very striking scene. The venue was a small auditorium at George Washington University. Invitations went out just two days earlier; and with so little notice, GWU students made up more than half of the audience. Former Democratic economic policy officials — myself and perhaps 10 others — directors of Democratic-allied policy shops, and a smattering of CEOs and senior Senate staffers filled up another row.  Just before the President took the stage, his economic team filed in — Bill Daley, Tim Geithner, Gene Sperling, Jack Lew — along with Vice President Biden and his new chief-of-staff, fresh from directing the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission.  Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles were there too, along with other Commission members — here’s what added drama to the scene — including Representative Paul Ryan, this year’s Republican guru on the budget sitting uncomfortably in the first row. The moment the President finished — without exaggeration — Ryan bolted for the exit. Perhaps he suspected that the President’s plan is smarter, fairer, more balanced and more credible than his own.

Both blueprints would reduce deficits by $4 trillion over the 10 (Ryan) or 12 (Obama) years, but the real difference lies in revenues. The Congressman would give away another $1 trillion in new tax cuts to high-income Americans and business, while the President would collect an additional $1 trillion in revenues. The consequent $2 trillion difference explains how the President, unlike Ryan, can stabilize federal debt as a share of GDP while preserving the basic guarantees of Medicare and Medicaid.  And there was one telling moment during the speech which demonstrated how new revenues change the choices that Americans face with the debt: The President was interrupted by applause only once, and it was when he said, “They [Republicans under Ryan’s plan] want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That’s not right. And it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.”

Obama’s plan, then, recasts the issue from the GOP choice between spiraling debt and drastic cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and all domestic spending, to a new choice between higher taxes on the top one or two percent of Americans and preserving health care coverage for elderly and low-income people while also controlling the debt.  That choice can be cast even more starkly: Control the debt by forcing seniors to pick up two-thirds of their own health care costs by 2030 (CBO’s estimate of the impact of Ryan’s plan) or deny wealthy Americans their most recent and future tax cuts.  If you believe the polls, Americans today overwhelming favor President Obama’s priorities over Representative Ryan’s.

With his additional revenues, the President still has to find $3 trillion in spending reductions.  One big chunk of cash would come from broadening and strengthening the cost-control measures in his signature health care reforms; including, reimbursing hospitals and doctors based on results rather than volume and authorizing a new federal board to mandate rather than merely recommend the use of proven, cost-saving approaches to treating Medicare patients. He also calls for a new version of an old budget mechanism, from the late-1980s, which would trigger automatic, across-the-board cuts in domestic spending whenever the deficit exceeds a certain level.

In the end, OMB number crunchers believe that these and other measures would shave $2 trillion from spending over 12 years, and the lower deficits would save another $1 trillion in interest payments on the debt.

President Obama’s approach also allows him to preserve the substantial new public investments in education, infrastructure, clean energy and basic R&D which he called for in his latest budget.  By putting together a plan to control deficits while increasing public investments — the “cut-and-invest” approach championed by Bill Clinton in the 1990s — he assumed an optimistic, can-do attitude that recalls Ronald Reagan. And the implicit contrast with the Republican “the sky is falling” recipe of large sacrifices may serve his reelection nearly as well as it did Reagan’s.

These choices will not be resolved anytime soon.  GOP leaders immediately rejected the President’s blueprint.  Yet, they and their Democratic counterparts know full well that any resolution will require real compromises that include both additional revenues and some paring of entitlements. They also know, based on the deficit struggles of the 1980s and 1990s, that it will likely take several years for both sides to find and comfortably claim some common ground.

Even so, the President’s speech will have more immediate consequences, because it may well make the GOP’s position on the debt limit politically untenable. They no longer can argue credibly that they have to hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, in order to force the President to get serious about the debt.  The country now has a choice, and the Republicans can no longer say, our way or no way, when it would risk pushing up U.S. interest rates and possibly shaking the global economy. The current impasse over debt limit will be resolved with some face-saving commitment by both sides to begin negotiating in good faith.



Forget about Spending and Get Serious about the Economy

March 31, 2011

Washington today, especially the Congress, has a textbook case of cognitive dissonance. A confluence of black swan developments may well threaten the American and global recoveries. There’s the civil war in Libya and unrest across much of the Middle East that could disrupt world energy supplies, the natural catastrophes in Japan may upend the world’s third largest economy, and several European governments are flirting with junk-bond status. On top of all this, recent data on housing, investment, and consumer spending all point to a still-fragile U.S. expansion. Yet, with all of this, Congress spends its time bickering over funds the federal government needs week to week just to keep operating.

This debate has become almost willfully wrong-headed. An economy not yet recovered fully from a historic financial meltdown and deep recession, and now facing possible major shocks from three directions, is no candidate for budget cuts. In fact, a new National Journal survey of 44 Washington economists and “economic insiders,” Democratic and Republican, found only one of the 44 who sees immediate spending cuts as the highest priority. (Full disclosure: I am one of the 44 surveyed.) If there are still any doubts about what happens when governments ignore this basic economics, consider Great Britain and Germany. Both embraced the austerity snake oil and plowed ahead with sharp spending cuts and tax increases. Two quarters later, the recoveries in both countries are stumbling badly.

Of course, these debates are not about economics at all. Here and in Europe, they’re driven by anti-government factions inside the base of each country’s conservative party. Congressional Republicans might take note, however, that this approach no better politics than it is economics. After enacting their programs, the governments of David Cameron and Angela Merkel find themselves hemorrhaging public support.

There is a time for serious debate about the role of American government in our economy and daily lives. The 2012 elections could provide a platform for real public deliberation about how much the government should do in the future to provide health care for elderly and poor people, ensure access to higher education for young people unlucky enough not to be born into affluence, or support the weapon systems, manpower and womanpower needed to wage multiple wars. At a minimum, the campaign should include some serious talk about whether the Obama administration did the right thing in driving health care coverage for most Americans.

Right now, however, is the time to focus on the clear and present dangers to the jobs and incomes of average Americans. The President made a good start this week with proposals to make the U.S. economy less energy intensive and especially less dependent on imported oil. Dealing with the continuing problems in Japan and Europe will be tougher. As we outlined last week, if the crisis in Japan persists for another month or longer, it will disrupt production here of everything that uses parts or elements made-in-Japan, from automobiles and electronics to medical equipment and even pharmaceuticals. Congress should take this time to consider steps that will help our manufacturers keep their U.S. workforces intact through such supply chain disruptions — for example, a temporary tax break on foreign earnings brought back home by manufacturers who expand their U.S. jobs. If Japan’s crisis deepens, it also will absorb all of Japanese saving, and then some. That development would likely drive sales of U.S. stocks by Japanese investors and sales of U.S. government securities by the Japanese government, creating new downward pressures on U.S. stock prices and new upward pressures on our interest rates. All of this means that the Federal Reserve and Treasury should take this time to prepare for another round of quantitative easing.  

A new debt crisis in Europe would threaten the balance sheets of our large financial institutions, yet one more time. They don’t have large holdings of Greek, Irish, Portuguese, Belgian or Spanish government debt, all of which now hang in the balance. But our big banks do have hundreds of billions of dollars in normal business with the large European banks that do carry huge portfolios of those bonds — and which might find themselves unable to carry out their contracts with our banks if another crisis hit. That’s what happened, in reverse, in September 2008, when American banks couldn’t honor their contracts with many European banks in the post-Lehman panic. Today, instead of arguing about PBS funding, congressional leaders should be quietly talking with the administration about ways to contain another financial crisis without bailouts which the public would never support again.

If the Congress and administration could refocus their current debate around these real and pressing issues, perhaps they could then move on to the longer-term problems that matter to most Americans outside the Tea Party. To begin, what can Washington do to help American businesses create new jobs at the vigorous rates we all considered merely normal, until the last decade?  There might even come a time for a serious public discussion about what steps might help reverse the corrosive income patterns of the last 30 years, which have seen a small minority of very rich and very highly-skilled Americans capture nearly all of the nation’s income gains, while middle class people stagnated and poor people lost ground.

And one point should be very clear: Budget cuts are no more of an answer to these long-term issues than they are for the more immediate problems facing the American economy.



The U.S. Economic Debate Gets a Failing Grade at the IMF

March 9, 2011

At the private conference this week convened by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), 30 world-class economists talked for two days about “Macro and Growth Policies in the Wake of the Crisis.” Their discussions provided a reality test for the current economic debate in Washington, and the last decade of U.S. policymaking flunked. Economic ideology not only blinded American policymakers to the seeds of a financial crisis that never had to happen; it also has led to wrong-headed responses for both the short-run and the long-term.

While the United States and other advanced countries embraced large-scale stimulus in 2008 and 2009 to avoid a global depression, the panelists pointed out that the world’s advanced economies are now moving in the opposite direction, without regard for the consequences. Across a group of economists who normally argue over every assumption and decimal point, a genuine consensus emerged that the American and European economies remain too fragile today to successfully absorb major deficit cuts.

While congressional Republicans wield a meat axe over the budget, and many Democrats would apply a scalpel, nearly all of the economic notables gathered at the IMF concluded that additional spending and tax breaks would be much more sensible. The 2009 and 2010 stimulus programs came in for plenty of criticisms, especially for their emphasis on tax breaks for households:  The financial meltdown and deep recession left most households with so much debt relative to their incomes that much of the stimulus just went to reducing their debt loads. Household debt today is considerably lower; but it hasn’t fallen as far as most people’s assets, because the value of their principal asset, their homes, has kept on declining month after month. This time, the experts agreed, any stimulus should be better targeted, for example through investment tax breaks and spending on education and infrastructure.

To be sure, there were repeated calls for a long-term “fiscal consolidation” program, which is how economists describe entitlement reforms and other measures that can limit a nation’s public debt to a reasonable share of its GDP. But they weren’t encouraged by what they’re hearing out of Congress, where politicians regularly conflate the need for long-term deficit reduction with a short-term opportunity to roll back the size of government. Nowhere is this confusion more obvious, several noted, than in a misguided focus on cutting current discretionary appropriations. And particular scorn was heaped on calls for cuts in education and infrastructure investments, which economists have long promoted as the best way to support future expansion and provide a lifetime of healthy social returns.

The most stinging critique, however, was reserved for the years of policy and business misjudgments which brought on the financial crisis and ultimately triggered the worst recession in 80 years. Starting with the opening remarks by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, a long line of economic luminaries laid out how policymakers here and in Europe misunderstand the very nature of modern financial capitalism. Again, there was rare unanimity for the view that markets today, which work so well in allocating resources, lack the means and the information to recognize bubbles and evaluate the economic risk of complex financial instruments.

Nor do policymakers have the excuse that this challenge represents something new. Hundreds of savings and loans went under in the 1980s, because financial markets couldn’t evaluate risk very well. Moreover, the 1990s saw three bubbles slowly take shape and then explode, first in Japan, then across much of East Asia, and finally in the Nasdaq tech sector. Yet, policymakers at the White House, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and their counterparts across Europe sat by placidly, just a few years later, as leading financial institutions recklessly accumulated enormous leverage for financial instruments based on an obvious bubble and whose riskiness they couldn’t begin to assess.

Yet, these misjudgments weren’t universal: The financial meltdown was limited to the advanced economies, while much of the developing world learned the painful lessons of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. So, their policymakers imposed new limits on leverage, and their financial institutions passed on investing in the toxic assets that brought down the U.S. and European economies. That’s why, at least for now, the developing economies have become the engine of global growth.

The Great Depression produced a large sheaf of institutional reforms which have helped the world avoid a repeat ever since. Yet, the Nobel Laureates and other experts gathered this week by the IMF also agreed that the United States and Europe have yet to undertake comparable reforms that would make another global financial crisis less likely. If we don’t, they warned, another financial crisis almost certainly will befall America and Europe in the foreseeable future.