The Infrastructure Cure For The Economy

Everyone understands that our (and the world’s) economy is underperforming. While U.S. unemployment is down, people are finding jobs that underpay and/or don’t provide enough hours. Regular people just don’t have enough to get by – never mind enough to drive consumer economies. The lack of pay causes a drop in consumer demand, which leads to economic malaise.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it clearly: “The only cure for the world’s malaise is an increase in aggregate demand.”

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Must-Watch: Why Govt Debt Is OK

From The Guardian, David Graeber: debt and what the government doesn’t want you to know – video

There is one taboo of economics that the government is hiding from the public, argues David Graeber: it is the fact that if the government balances its books, it becomes impossible for the private sector to do the same. And, he claims, this inevitable debt often gets landed on those in society least able to pay it back

Will the TPP Increase Trade? That’s the Wrong Question

One of the selling points for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is that it will “increase trade.”

Here’s the thing. If you close a factory in the U.S., lay off all of the workers, devastate the surrounding community, and move the production to a low-wage country like Vietnam, bring the same goods back to the U.S. and sell them in the same stores, you have just “increased trade” because now those goods cross a border.

Plus you have the added bonus that executives and shareholders can pocket the wage difference (or park the money in the Cayman Islands). Hopefully they can also pocket the difference in environmental protection costs, workers safety costs, etc., because in places like Vietnam, good luck with ever getting those things.

Economists will tell you that moving the factory to Vietnam is an efficient allocation of resources. The workers and factory here in the U.S. can now be used for something that “we do better here in the U.S,” they might say, and the workers will be rehired at a better wage. The repurposed factory will sell higher-value things to the world that more than make up for the loss of exports of what the factory had been making.

Look around you. Is that what is happening as a result of our trade policies? No; we instead have a massive trade deficit. Entire regions of the country are shifting to third-world status, downtowns boarded up, foreclosed houses falling down, people feeling hopeless… and a few people get more and more wealthy at the expense of the rest of the world.

Regular Americans see their standard of living falling as a direct result of trade policies designed to break unions and increase the wealth and power of a few at the top. Many workers in other countries have few rights, the environment is not protected, government and self-determination are undermined…

If our trade policies were combined with policies that share the benefits from lower production costs, etc. with all of us on all sides of trade borders, then increased trade would be a good thing. That is not what is happening. The trade policies are designed to break worker power and to break governmental power.

So, yes, TPP will “increase trade.” Which means more and more jobs and production moving out of the U.S.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Sanders’ Socialism Speech: America Is For All Of Us, Not Just Wealthy

“I don’t believe in some foreign “ism”, but I believe deeply in American idealism.”
– Senator Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders billed his talk Thursday at Georgetown University as a speech on “democratic socialism,” but it was immediately clear that what Sanders was really talking about were not the ideologies of a Cold War adversary but deeply American traditions of fairness that have been under attack by ideologues brandishing American flags.

Sanders anchored his speech as building on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 “Second Bill of Rights” address. “Real freedom must include economic security.” he said. “That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. It is time that we did.”

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What Do Candidates Propose To Boost Stagnant Economy?

Thursday’s bad news: Third-quarter GDP lands with thud: just 1.5 percent growth. That is down from 3.9 percent growth the previous quarter. The economy appears to be slowing, partly because of the drag effect of our trade deficit and partly because of the drag on the economy due to austerity policies (federal spending cuts that take money out of the economy).

In the presidential campaign Republican candidates are proposing even more austerity as a solution to the lackadaisical recovery, combined with tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of Wall Street and the giant corporations. Democrats, on the other hand are proposing infrastructure investment and a number of other positive solutions.

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What Is This ‘Cadillac Tax’ Health Insurance Thingy?

You may have heard about the “Cadillac tax” health insurance thing. As with so much else involved with the health care/insurance discussion, policymakers have chosen wording that causes most people to tune out. Terms like “Cadillac tax” have little meaning to regular people because they convey very little information – or they evoke an image that masks its true impact.

When policymakers talk about a “Cadillac tax” on health insurance plans, what they are referring to is an upcoming tax on employers who provide really good health insurance plans that cover lots of things without requiring employees to pay large co-pays and deductibles when they get medical care. These plans cost more, so they are compared to luxury cars that cost more, hence “Cadillac.”

The tax was written into the Affordable Care Act with the consent of the Obama administration, which saw it as a way to limit federal government spending on health care reform. There are people who thing this tax is a good idea, and people who want the tax repealed.

Arguments In Favor Of The Tax

Those in favor of the tax are “market” economists who believe that people’s decisions, even about health care choices, are mostly driven by economic motives. They believe that people are “homo economicus” – a species of people who have good information and make rational decisions based on what will make them (or save them) the most money. These people are seen as “consumers” who respond to prices over other priorities in their lives.

They claim that with good health insurance, “consumers have little incentive to insist on cost-effective care and providers have little incentive to provide it.” The idea is that a tax on employers who offer good health insurance will benefit the country and:
1) create market forces that will reduce the country’s health care costs over time, and,
2) Translate as higher pay to employees because the employers are spending less on health insurance.

These economists believe that the better the health care plan, the more people will go to doctors and specialists when they don’t really have to. They believe people use high-cost medical procedures and drugs because they do not shop around for the lowest-priced alternatives. They believe that making people pay higher co-pays and/or deductibles and limiting which doctors they can see will cause them to “consume” less and stop “overutilizing” expensive medical care.

They say that setting high co-pays and deductibles, and limits on doctors, will make people put “skin in the game” and:

1) Stop knowingly using medical services needlessly. People know when they don’t really have to see a doctor but do so anyway because they don’t have to pay too much.
2) “Shop around” for the lowest-cost doctors (of those offered) when they do need medical care.
3) “Shop around” when a drug or procedure is needed, whether it’s for fixing a broken arm or treating cancer, and will choose the lowest-cost options.

The Argument For Repealing This Tax

That was the market economist side of the “Cadillac Tax” argument. They want the tax to take effect starting next year, as planned. The other side is people who want to repeal the tax. They want citizens to have more access to good health care, with low co-pays and low deductibles and a wide choice of doctors and care options.

On a conference call Thursday, Economic Policy Institute (EPI) Research Director Josh Bivens and Senior Economist Elise Gould outlined arguments against this tax. They explained that research (and basic common sense) shows that consumers are not equipped with information and knowledge that enables them to cut back only on unnecessary or ineffective care. In other words, people go to doctors to find out if they need medical care, because the doctors are the ones trained in medicine, not regular people.

With high deductibles and co-pays, people cut back on health care across the board. They don’t see a doctor when they need to, which can cause them to be sicker when they finally do see a doctor (which is more expensive and undoes the money-saving efforts) or just suffer, which should not be a policy goal (unless you are a conservative or a psychopath).

In EPI’s “Tax on Expensive Health Insurance Plans Could Cut Care Along With Costs,” Bivens and Gould write,

Evidence shows that making health care more expensive does induce people to consume less of it. But the same evidence shows that people do not cut back only on care that is ineffective or somehow luxurious; instead, they cut back across the board. Expecting sick Americans to decide on the fly in an opaque and uncompetitive marketplace what health care is cost-effective–and what is not–is an unrealistic and unfair approach to containing costs.

While overall costs may be pushed down by the excise tax, this is a good outcome only if one believes that the health care squeezed out is merely the ineffective kind. But a lot of welfare-improving care may also be a casualty, and for some patients, cutting back on medically indicated care because of the increased cost-sharing could increase their overall spending. For example: some patients who cut back on low-cost pills to contain cholesterol end up in emergency rooms.

Cutting utilization is also a limited cost-containment strategy…

One more thing: the market economists claim that employers will pass along savings from lower-cost plans to employees as higher pay. What is the fat chance of that? What world do they live in? World economicus? I mean, really.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

The Wild Ride Gets Wilder – Only Government Spending Can Fix This

The world is out of balance. Everyone’s nervous. There is a glut of money floating around the world and no one offers a “safe place” to put it. The stock market is way up, way down, way up, way down – sometimes all on the same day. China’s currency is having dramatic swings while the U.S. has an enormous, humongous trade deficit.

Super-wealthy people are making and losing hundreds of millions (sometimes billions) in a day – none of it on making or doing actual things that matter. Inequality is soaring. (The top 25 hedge fund managers earn more than all kindergarten teachers in the U.S. combined.) And all around the world, there’s very little actual economic growth.

Meanwhile, most people barely (or don’t) have enough to get by.

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Trump: Don’t Make Corporations Pay Their Taxes

Republican economics has been stated a thousand ways by a thousand (always paid) voices. But the basic idea behind all the schemes has been hard to pin down. Finally Republican front-runner Donald Trump has spelled it out in a way anyone can understand.

Thursday’s Progressive Breakfast (you should subscribe, it’s free, it’s really good) contains a story in which Trump clearly articulates the Republican/Billionaire/Wall Street case for a low-or-zero tax on corporate profits: “because they don’t want to pay the tax.”

Trump Sides With Multinationals
Donald Trump backs repatriation in Time interview: “Pfizer is talking about moving to Ireland. Or someplace else … Do you know how big that is? It would wipe out New Jersey … They have $2.5 trillion sitting out of the country that they can’t get back because they don’t want to pay the tax. Nor would I … We should let them back in. Everybody. Even if you paid nothing it would be a good deal. Because they’ll take that money then and use it for other things. But they’ll pay something. Ten percent, they’ll pay something.”

There it is in a nutshell. The Republican case for low or no taxes: “because they don’t want to pay the tax.”

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When The Real World Confronts Trade Theories, The Real World Wins

I had a conversation over the weekend about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). She’s for it, because “more trade is always good.”

TPP covers a whole lot more than what we would think of as “trade.” Regardless, let’s look here at the idea that expanding trade is always good.

Trade Is Good

Trade is good. We all at the very least trade our time for our pay. We might make or grow or draw or write something that we sell (trade) for money. Trade is basic.

But how we trade always makes a difference. If we trade our time and get paid too little, is that a good thing because it was a “trade”? Obviously the way trade gets done – the rules/policies that are in place – makes all the difference. So the question to consider is whether our current international trade policies as applied under our current economic order a good thing or a bad thing for We the People of the United States.

Cross-Border Trade

“Increasing cross-border trade” sounds like a worthy goal. But if you close a factory in the U.S., move the machines and jobs to a low-wage country, then bring the goods back here to sell in the same stores, you have just “increased cross-border trade.” How should we look at this?

The people now making the goods are paid much less, the investors who own the factory are pocketing much more. Sounds bad, unless you’re one of those owners.

Economists will tell you this is good because fewer of the resources of your economy are being expended to obtain whatever that factory was producing. Those resources can now be applied elsewhere by the investors, toward more productive investment. Sounds good.

Theoretically those American workers will now be freed up to do more productive work, potentially at a better pay rate. Sounds good.

But the way our current economic order works, those resources (the difference between what the American workers were paid and the lower costs of making the stuff somewhere else) are more often applied to the offshore tax-haven accounts of the elite investors than toward “more productive” investments. Sounds bad.

And the way our current system is working, without this new investment those workers remain unemployed, competing with the rest of the people in the workforce, which drives down everyone’s wages except for a few at the top. The reality is that if people laid off due to trade find new jobs, it is at a lower rate of pay. Sounds bad.

Economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. The elites use rigged “trade” deals to knock down labor costs. Instead of applying the gains toward investment in our economic future and higher wages for America’s workforce, they apply it to their bank accounts.

Comparative Advantage

The idea of comparative advantage says that countries (regions, etc.) should do what they are good at and trade with others for the things the others do better. Some countries are good at growing bananas and they can trade them for things they can’t grow or make.

But what counts as a comparative advantage?

A few years ago The New York Times took a look at the shift of manufacturing (and associated jobs) from the U.S. to China, in the report “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.” The report is known for the Steve Jobs quote, talking to President Obama, saying, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

The reason Jobs said those jobs are not coming back was that in China the workers sleep in dormitories, 12 to a room, and can be rousted out of bed at any hour to complete “rush” jobs. They can be made to stand all day, work with dangerous chemicals, are paid very little, cannot organize unions, cannot even vote for a government that would make their lives better.

In other words, China offers a “comparative advantage.” That advantage is that they are not a democracy, workers have no rights and no voice. China is very “business-friendly.” So why would a company like Apple use American workers when they can use workers kept in these conditions?

Our democracy is a comparative disadvantage in world trade. Sounds bad.

Again economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. America had factories, China offered low-wage workers and the opportunity to freely pollute. Elites moved the factories to China. Elites use “trade” to attack democracy, turning government of, by and for We the People into a comparative disadvantage in world markets.

Click to see a video of Ian Fletcher talking at, of all places, the Heritage Foundation about his book, “Free Trade Doesn’t Work.” At 21:06 to 25:47 minutes he takes a very good look at the idea of comparative advantage in the real world. In sum:
1) Absence of externalities is not a competitive advantage. The pollution is still there, the workers are still exploited.
2) Capital mobility means you are allocating your capital outside of your own economy.
3) Comparative statistics look at a snapshot, a fixed point in time. If China doesn’t already have a factory making X it is not comparative advantage to go open one there. It is not the best move today if the other country is not already producing the thing for less.

Economies Of Scale

When trade is “opened up” across a border it doesn’t mean that new customers suddenly appear, anxious to buy goods and services produced by America’s small businesses. It’s not like there were no producers and suppliers on the other side of that trade border. The goods and services of an economy were likely already being supplied by someone.

Acme Widget, based in the American town of Plainville, is not suddenly going to get orders from small towns all across the new trading partner Tradonia. Tradonia already has suppliers of widgets. Those suppliers will just as easily come sell their widgets in Plainville.

Economists will say that “opening up” trade across a border increases competition, which benefits consumers. But this is not how it actually works. What has really opened up is a larger playing field with more opportunities for big companies on both sides of trade borders to dominate a larger market than the one they had been dominating, with a resulting decrease in aggregate employment.

In our current economic order big companies have advantages because of their size, and unfortunately rules are made based on which companies are ready to shell out the cash to influence how the rules for competition and domination of industries are made. Larger companies dominate and remove smaller competitors. One or two of these companies will get most of the business in both countries and become very large; the others will be gone. Due to economies of scale the overall widget manufacturing employment will decrease. The new monopolies and near-monopolies will then have the ability to charge what they want.

Once again economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. Opening up trade borders is more likely to bring further consolidation of giant companies, not more competition.

Reality Wins

These are just a few examples of the problems of academic trade and economic theory confronted with the realities of what actually happens in actual countries.

Another economic theory says that trade will balance as a result of currency adjustments. Supposedly when a country is running a surplus its currency rate will increase and things made in those countries will cost more, so purchases will shift back to the country that had a deficit. But in the real world, the United State competes with real countries that don’t play this way. Our country has an enormous, humongous trade deficit and has run continual trade deficits every single year since the late 1970s when “free markets” and “free trade” ideology came to dominate. This is because we follow an economic theory ideology, and other countries look at reality and adjust. So they win.

Reality trumps economic theories and ideologies – Every. Single. Time.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Next Big One: Repatriation Tax Holiday Giveaway To Corporations

Here comes the next big one. Now that the corporations have fast-track trade authority in the bag, they are trying to push a huge, huge tax giveaway through Congress. We have to get the word out so this doesn’t just sneak through. We can’t let them continue to rig the system against us like this.

Up To $770 Billion Is Owed On $2.2 Trillion In Corporate Profits Stashed In Tax Havens

You might have heard about all that money the giant corporations have been stashing in tax havens so they can dodge paying their taxes. You might not have heard how much they owe us. Corporations have somewhere around $2.2 billion of “offshore” profits stashed in tax havens. They owe up to 35 percent in taxes on that money. That’s right; they owe up to $770 billion that We the People could have right now for our roads, schools, health care, scientific research, space exploration, to forgive student debt … we could have free college tuition, expand Social Security, high-speed rail across the country…. Instead, we’re told we can’t have these things because there are “budget deficits.”

And on top of that, at least another $50 billion per year of tax money is kept from us because of this scam.

Congress could just tell these corporations to pay up, and We the People would have up to $770 billion to use to make our lives better, and another $50 billion or more each year.

See if you can guess what Congress is getting ready to do instead?

Tax Holiday

Right now the giant, multinational corporations owe up to $770 billion in taxes on the $2.2 trillion they are holding outside the country in tax-haven mailbox subsidiaries. Right now. They have the cash in the bank (in tax-haven countries) and could write checks tomorrow if Congress told them to. Again, this is taxes they already owe but haven’t paid. Think of the things our country could do with that money.

But instead …

Congress is proposing to give these companies a tax holiday and let them off from paying the taxes they already owe on that money. There is all kinds of complicated language being used to mask what is happening, but it’s really simple: Some members of Congress are proposing letting them off from the taxes they already owe on “offshore” profits, and then letting them off from paying taxes on future profits made “outside the country” from now on.

For example, the Charles Schumer-Rob Portman bill in the Senate will tax this money (on which 35 percent is already owed), “at a rate significantly lower than the statutory corporate rate.” And then it will cut tax rates on future “offshore” profits forever.

Quick question: For years these companies have been moving jobs, production and profit centers out of the country to take advantage of this tax dodge. If they are rewarded for this with this huge tax cut, how many more companies will move jobs, production and profit centers out of the country from now on? Bonus question: Will there be any jobs, production or profit centers left inside the U.S. if Congress lets companies off the hook from taxes on profits made from moving jobs, production and profits centers out of the country?

Don’t Let this Sneak Past Us

The corporations and billionaires count on these things sneaking through under cover of complicated language, so we never find out what is happening to us. Later they tell us “we’re broke” and there is no way to “pay for” things like roads, schools, and other needs. They tell us we have “deficits” that could “bankrupt” us, so college tuition has to go up, we have to pay to use toll roads, they have to cut funding for schools, we can’t have high-speed rail, they can’t afford to do scientific research or space exploration or fight global warming or fix up national parks, and so on.

But what is really going on is the game is being rigged. Corporations get huge tax breaks and subsidies, a few billionaires and plutocrats get the cash, and We the People, the 99 percent, have to make up the difference.

We need to get the word out about this. This is the next big one they are trying to slip through before we know what is happening to us.

We have to fight this. We have to make noise. Even if we don’t win this, at least we will know what happened this time. Then, later, when they come back and say there’s no money to do things that make our lives better, we will be able to see through the smokescreen. We will know where the money went, and eventually enough people will understand how the game is being rigged – and stop it.

Congress should tell the giant, multinational corporations that it is time to pay the taxes the already owe on “offshore” profits. They should not reward companies for moving jobs, production and profit centers out of our country.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Export-Import Bank Shut Down, China Gets The Business Instead

Republicans have shut down the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank as of midnight, July 1. They are touting it as a blow against “corporate welfare” and “crony capitalism.” But who are the real winners here?

It’s certainly not us workers.

Last year the bank helped finance almost $30 billion worth of U.S. exports — things made here, by workers employed here. Germany, Japan, China and many other countries have similar agencies. Now they will be picking up that business. Our trade deficit will increase. Jobs, wages and factories will move elsewhere.

Export Assistance

The United States does not have an economic/industrial policy that supports American manufacturing. Meanwhile, other countries support their industries. As a result, the U.S. has an enormous, humongous trade deficit, trading American assets for foreign-made commodities. We lose jobs, factories, companies, and entire industries to countries that understand the long-term benefits to their economies of national investment in key, strategic industries. On the other hand, a few people here get enormously wealthy from selling off our net worth in the short term. So, there’s that.

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