Tag: economy

Does the U.S. Economy Need More Boeings or More Facebooks?

Remember the story of that once-great nation that sacrificed its well-paying manufacturing jobs for low-wage, burger-flipping jobs at the altar of free trade? At one time, that story was a popular rejoinder of manufacturing unions and their apologists to the inconvenient facts that, despite manufacturing employment attrition, the economy was producing an average of 1.84 million net new jobs per year every year between 1983 and 2007, a quarter century during which the real value of U.S. trade increased five-fold and real GDP more than doubled.

The claim that service-sector jobs are uniformly inferior to manufacturing jobs lost credibility, as average wages in the two broad sectors converged in 2005 and have been consistently higher in services ever since. In 2011, the average service sector wage stood at $19.18 per hour, as compared to $18.94 in manufacturing. (But I don’t recall buying any $25-$30 hamburgers last year.)

One reason for U.S. manufacturing wages being higher than services wages in the past is that manufacturing labor unions “succeeded” at winning concessions from management that turned out to be unsustainable. The value of manufacturing labor didn’t justify its exorbitant costs, which encouraged producers to substitute other inputs for labor and to adopt more efficient techniques and technologies.

With the superiority-of-manufacturing-wages argument discredited, new arguments have emerged attempting to make the case that there is something special – even sacred – about the manufacturing sector that should afford it special policy consideration. Many of those arguments, however, conflate the meanings of manufacturing sector employment and manufacturing sector health or they rely on statistics that don’t support their arguments or they become irrelevant by losing sight of the fact that resources are scarce and must be used efficiently. And too often the prescriptions offered would place the economy on the slippery slope that descends into industrial policy.

I recently submitted this rebuttal to this essay by an environmental sciences professor by the name of Vaclav Smil, who commits those errors. (Judging from the tone of his mostly evasive response to my rebuttal, Smil doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for views that differ from his own.) Perhaps most noteworthy among Smil’s slew of questionable arguments is his claim that manufacturing companies, like Boeing, valued at $50 billion, are better for the economy than service companies like Facebook, which is also valued at $50 billion because

[i]n terms of job creation there is no comparison… Boeing employs some 160,000 people, whereas Facebook only employs 2,000.

Granted, Boeing’s operations support more jobs. But is that better for the economy than a company that provides the same value using 1/80th the amount of labor resources? Of course not. We need economic growth in the United States to create wealth and increase living standards. Economic growth and employment are not one and the same thing. In fact, the essence of growth is creating more value with fewer inputs (or at lower input cost). Creating jobs is easy. Instead of bulldozers, mandate shovels; instead of shovels, require spoons. Inefficient production techniques can create more jobs than efficient ones, but they don’t create value, which is the economic goal.

With 2,000 workers producing the same value as 160,000 – one producing the same value as 80 – Facebook is 80 times more productive than Boeing, freeing up 158,000 workers for other more productive endeavors (perhaps 79 more Facebook-type operations). If those companies were individual countries, the per capita GDP in Facebookland would be $25 million, but only $3.125 million in Boeingia. Where would you rather live?

Smil calls my assessment a cruel joke, presumably for its failure to empathize with unemployed and underemployed Americans, by considering value before job creation.  But policies designed to encourage more Boeing’s, as Smil supports (or, in fairness, any businesses that employ at least X number of people or meet this requirement or that) would likely retard the establishment of firms, like Facebook, that produce the goods and services that people want to consume. The provision of goods and services that people want to buy – rather than those that policymakers in Washington think people want to buy (or are happy to force them to buy) – is the essence of value creation.

Thus, policies should incentivize (or, at least not discourage) the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship needed to create more Facebooks? This kind of business formation occurs in environments where the rule of law is clear and abided; where there is greater certainty to the business and political climate; where the specter of asset expropriation is negligible; where physical and administrative infrastructure is in good shape; where the local work force is productive; where skilled foreigners aren’t chased back to their own shores; where there are limited physical, political, and administrative frictions; and so on. In other words, restraining the role of government to its proper functions and nothing more would create the environment most likely to produce more Facebooks in both the manufacturing and services sectors.

Ron Paul Talks Sense on Trade

Presidential Candidate Ron Paul has a decidedly mixed record on trade policy. He often votes against trade agreements because he sees them as “managed trade” and  an interference with true free trade. Well, ok, but that’ s like voting against income tax cuts because you think the IRS shouldn’t exist. I get the point, but c’mon…

In any event, he was the only participant in Thursday night’s debate between the Republican presidential candidates who spoke about trade with any sense at all. As Inside US Trade [subscription required] points out, trade policy was not a prominent theme of the debate, but that didn’t stop Mitt Romney from (again) spouting nonsense about balanced trade:

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney late last week took a swipe at the trade policies of the Obama administration in a debate of the Republican presidential candidates by implying they are unbalanced in favor of other nations.

As part of a seven-point list of actions to turn around the economy, Romney said the U.S. should “have trade policies that work for us, not just for our opponents,” as the third point…

(I’ll just interject here to say that by “opponents” I believe Mr Romney is referring to our trade partners. You know, the folks who sell us stuff and buy stuff from us. But I digress…)

Trade was only raised one other time during the debate. Prompted by a moderator, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) defended his earlier criticism of Obama’s sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

Saying it was “natural” that Iran would pursue nuclear weapons—given that India, Pakistan, China, and Israel also possess them—Paul attacked the sanctions policy as steering the U.S. toward conflict.

Countries that you put sanctions on, you are more likely to fight them,” he said. “I say a policy of peace is free trade. Stay out of their internal business.”

Paul also suggested it was time for the U.S. to engage in a trading relationship with Cuba and “stop fighting these wars that are about 30 or 40 years old,” an apparent reference to the Cold War. [emphasis added]

(My friend Scott Lincicome has more on the economic illiteracy flowing from the debate here)

Mr Paul is right on this one. He and I no doubt disagree on a few issues, and on trade I have more tolerance than he does for multilateral (and, albeit to a lesser extent, bilateral and regional) trade agreements as the only likely avenues for trade liberalization in the foreseeable future. But the link between trade and peace is an important one, and often overlooked.

Speaking of Ron Paul, the following clip shows Jon Stewart at his devastating best, calling out the mainstream media—and particularly Fox News—for ignoring and/or outright mocking Ron Paul’s candidacy. Watch to the very end, you won’t regret it. (HT: RadleyBalko)

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2012 - Corn Polled Edition - Ron Paul & the Top Tier
www.thedailyshow.com
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Boehner Plan Doesn’t Cut Spending

House Speaker John Boehner is scrambling to revise his budget plan after the CBO found that it would only cut spending by $850 billion, not the $1.2 trillion promised.

However, the Boehner plan doesn’t actually cut spending at all. The chart shows the discretionary spending caps in the Boehner plan. Spending increases every year—from $1.043 trillion in 2012 to $1.234 trillion in 2021. (This category of spending excludes the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

The “cuts” in the Boehner plan are only cuts from the CBO baseline, which is an imaginary path of future spending designed as a planning tool for Congress. Boehner can propose to spend any amount in any future year he wants, and in this plan he choose to have a steadily rising spending path.

The Boehner plan also doesn’t cut spending in a more fundamental way. It doesn’t lay out any particular programs or agencies to terminate. I’m in favor of spending caps as a secondary enforcement mechanism, but actual cuts have to come first. A caps-only plan like Boehner’s just kicks the can down the road. At best, it simply nudges future legislators to actually cut something specific.

Why doesn’t the House leadership propose real cuts? They’ve certainly got the resources and expertise to do the job. A single senator – Tom Coburn – produced a 620-page report last week detailing hundreds of programs to cut and terminate. Coburn and his staff read through thousands of articles and reports on the real-world performance of federal programs, and they made a good case for each particular cut they proposed.

Republican leaders can’t hide behind baselines forever. If they really want a smaller government as they keep claiming, they’ve got to target particular programs and agencies and begin a national debate about terminating them.

Trade Helps Explain Texas-Sized Job Growth

As its governor, Rick Perry, weighs a run for the White House, Texas has drawn attention for its healthy job growth. Since the recession ended in June 2009, Texas has accounted for half of the net new jobs added to the U.S. economy, according to the lead story in this morning’s USA Today. That’s quite a record for one lone state.

We’ll leave it to others for now to argue over how much credit Gov. Perry can claim. Some credit surely goes to high oil prices, fueling job growth in a sector important to the Texas economy. Another reason for its relatively strong job growth is a friendly business climate, including no state income tax and relatively light regulations. And for those who scapegoat trade for the nation’s persistently high unemployment rate, consider that Texas is the nation’s number one trading state. As the USA Today story notes:

Overseas shipments by Texas’ strong computer, electronics, petrochemical and other industries rose 21% last year, compared with 15% for the nation, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. The state also benefits from its proximity to Latin American countries that are big importers of U.S. goods … The surge creates jobs for Texas manufacturers and ports.

As I can attest from recent speaking engagements in San Antonio and Laredo, Texans have embraced their state’s position as the nation’s leading gateway for trade with NAFTA-partner Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

While politicians and union bosses from other states grumble about allegedly unfair trade, the latest trade and job numbers show that the people of Texas are making the most of the opportunities created by our more open economy.

 

Nobel Prize Winner Analyzes the Obama Growth Gap

I’ve explained before that one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Obamanomics is that the economy is suffering from sub-par growth, something that is particularly damning since normally one expects to see faster-than-average growth following an economic downturn.

In a recent presentation, Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago included a couple of graphs that illustrate this phenomenon. This first chart shows the history of U.S. economic growth over the past 140 years. As you can see, the growth rate was remarkably constant over time, and there were always periods of rapid growth following economic downturns.

Lucas, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1995, then looks at the data for the recent downturn and recovery. As you can see, we have been struggling to get back to average growth rates and we have not enjoyed any of the above-average growth that normally follows a recession.

The key question, of course, is why growth has been anemic, resulting in (what seems to be) a permanent loss of output. In his presentation, Lucas warns that bad government policy is playing a big role. He says that “the problem is government is doing too much,” and he specifically highlights the “likelihood of much higher taxes, focused on ‘the rich’” and a “large increase in the role of government” in the healthcare sector.

In his conclusion, Professor Lucas is not overly optimistic about recovering lost output. He doesn’t make any flamboyant claims, but he does note that “European economies have larger government role and 20-30% lower income level than US.”

The obvious connection, as I’ve pointed out on many occasions, is that America is becoming a European-style welfare state and it is unavoidable that we will suffer from European-style economic malaise.

P.S. It should be noted that America’s anemic economic performance in recent years is not solely Obama’s fault. As the White House repeatedly points out, he inherited a downturn. That is completely accurate. My complaint, however, is that Obama promised hope and change but instead has exacerbated the big government policies of his predecessor.

El Salvador’s Unfortunate Lesson

Two years ago in a Cato study I documented El Salvador’s remarkable liberalization process and the significant progress in economic and social indicators that resulted from those free market reforms. I also warned then about how those achievements were threatened by the likely victory of the former Marxist guerrilla group, FMLN, in the presidential election of 2009.

Even though Mauricio Funes, the then FMLN candidate now turned president, has proven to be a relatively moderate figure when compared to his radical left-wing party, El Salvador is reversing many of the gains of the past decade. Mary O’Grady’s column in the Wall Street Journal today, which describes how “the wheels came off” of the “once thriving Salvadoran economy,” is a reminder to all countries not to take progress for granted.

End the Fed: More than Just a Bumper Sticker Slogan?

To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

As they say, stay tuned.