Tag: employment

Pearlstein Wants Tough Trade Measures Against China…and the U.S.

Steven Pearlstein’s ready for the nuclear option.  With the conviction of a man who knows he won’t be held accountable for the consequences of his prescriptions, Pearlstein says the time has come for action against China.  Hopefully, those whose fingers are actually near the button will recognize Pearlstein’s suggestion for what it is: an outburst of frustration over what he considers China’s insubordination.

In his Washington Post business column yesterday, Pearlstein criticizes U.S. policymakers for blindly adhering to the view that China will inevitably transition to democratic capitalism, while they’ve excused market-distorting protectionism, mercantilism, and state dominance over the economy in China.  Pearlstein writes:

Up to now, a succession of administrations has argued against directly challenging China over its mercantilist policies, figuring it would be more effective in the long run to let the economic relationship grow deeper and give the Chinese the time and respect their culture demands to make the inevitable transition to democratic capitalism.

What we have discovered, however, is that the Chinese don’t view the transition as inevitable and that, in any case, they really aren’t much interested in relationships. If anything, they’ve proven to be relentlessly transactional. And their view of business and economics remains so thoroughly mercantilist that they not only can’t imagine any other way, but assume that everyone else thinks the way they do. To try to convince them otherwise is folly.

Pearlstein’s suggestion that the Chinese “aren’t much interested in relationships” strikes me as frustration over the fact that China is no longer a U.S. supplicant.  Perhaps the truth is that China isn’t much interested in a one-way relationship, where it is expected to meet all U.S. demands, while seeing its own wishes ignored.  Calling them “relentlessly transactional” is accusing them of naivety for missing the bigger picture, which, for Pearlstein, is that the U.S. is still top dog and China ignores that at its peril. 

Pearlstein is not the first columnist to criticize the Chinese government for putting its interests ahead of America’s (or, more accurately, putting what it believes to be its best interests ahead of what U.S. policymakers believe to be in their own interests).  In a recent Cato policy paper titled Manufacturing Discord: Growing Tensions Threaten the U.S.-China Economic Relationship, I was addressing opinion leaders who have staked out positions similar to Pearlstein’s when I wrote:

Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes….

One explanation for the change in tenor is that media pundits, policymakers, and other analysts are viewing the relationship through a prism that has been altered by the fact of a rapidly rising China.  That China emerged from the financial meltdown and subsequent global recession wealthier and on a virtually unchanged high-growth trajectory, while the United States faces slow growth, high unemployment, and a large debt (much of it owned by the Chinese), is breeding anxiety and changing perceptions of the relationship in both countries….

Of course, the U. S. is the larger economy and the chief designer of the still-prevailing global economic architecture.  But the implication that that distinction immunizes the U. S. from costly repercussions if U.S. sanctions were imposed against China is foolish.  But that’s exactly where Pearlstein’s going when he writes:

Getting this economic relationship back into balance is the single biggest challenge to the global economy, not just because of its direct effects on China and the United States, but the indirect effects it has on the rest of the world. The alternative is a return to living beyond our means, a further erosion of our industrial and technological base and a continued loss of ownership of business and financial assets.

By balancing the economic relationship, presumably Pearlstein is speaking about the need to reduce the bilateral trade deficit, which spurs a net outflow of dollars to China, some of which the Chinese lend back to Americans, who in turn can then buy more imports from China, and the cycle continues.  But to tip the scales in favor of the blunt force action he recommends later, Pearlstein characterizes Chinese investment in the United States as living beyond our means, losing ownership of “our” assets, and eroding our industrial and technological base.  That is a paternalistic and inaccurate characterization of the dynamics of capital inflows from China.

First, let’s remember that the Chinese aren’t holding a gun to the heads of the chairs of our congressional appropriations committees demanding that politicians borrow and spend more on senseless programs.  It’s absolutely priceless when spendthrift members of Congress, oblivious to the irony, blame the Chinese for having caused the U.S. financial crisis for providing cheap credit to fuel asset bubbles when it was their own profligacy that brought the Chinese to U.S. debt markets in the first place.  Stop deficit spending and the need to borrow from China (or anywhere else) goes away. 

Likewise, it is a sad commentary on the state of individual responsibility in the U.S. when a prominent business writer thinks the only way to keep consumers from living beyond their means is to deprive their would-be-creditors of capital.  It sounds a bit like the same tactics deployed in the U.S. War on Drugs.  Blame the suppliers.  The fact that U.S. savings rates have been rising for two years suggests that responsible Americans are interested in rebuilding their assets without need of such measures.

There are other destinations for capital inflows from China, which (despite Pearlstein’s disparaging allusions) should be entirely unobjectionable.  Chinese investment in U.S. corporate debt, equities markets, real estate markets, and direct investment in U.S. manufacturing and services industries does not erode our industrial and technological base.  It enhances it.  It does not constitute a loss of ownership of business and financial assets, but rather a mutual exchange of assets at an agreed price.  When Chinese investors compete as buyers in U.S. markets, the value of the assets in those markets rises, which benefits the owners of those assets when there is an exchange.  Chinese purchases of anything American, with the exception of debt, do not constitute claims on the future.  Accordingly, the economic relationship can achieve the much vaunted need for rebalancing without need of attempting to forcefully reduce the trade deficit by restraining imports.

Pearlstein continues:

So if the urgent need is to rebalance the global economy by rebalancing the U.S.-China economic relationship, we are probably going to have to begin this process on our own. And that means establishing some sort of tariff regime that will increase the cost of imports not just from China, but other countries that keep their currencies artificially low, restrict the flow of capital or maintain significant barriers to imports of goods and services. The proceeds of those tariffs should be used to encourage exports in some fashion…

This relationship, however, is one that must be actively managed by the two governments. It should be obvious by now that their government is rather effective at managing their end of things. It should be equally obvious that we cannot continue to rely on free markets to manage our end.

So Pearlstein comes full circle.  He wants the U. S. to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, subsidize U.S. exports, and institute top-down industrial policy.  In other words, he wants the U.S. to be more like China. 

Of course, I would argue, we already have something that encourages exports.  They’re called imports.  Over half of the value of U.S. imports are intermediate goods—capital equipment, components, raw materials—that are used by American-based producers to make goods for their customers in the U. S. and abroad.  Furthermore, foreigners need to be able to sell to Americans if they are going to have the dollars to buy products from Americans.  And finally, if the U.S. implements trade restrictions on China to compel currency revaluation or anything else, retaliation against U.S. exports is a given.

In short, imports are a determinant of exports.  If you impede imports, you impede exports.  So Pearlstein’s idea that we can somehow subsidize exports by taxing and reducing imports is not particularly well-considered.  And though it may be tempting to look at China’s economic success as an endorsement or vindication of industrial policy, it is difficult to discern how much of China’s growth can be attributed to central planning, and how much has happened despite it.  But in the U.S., where one of our unique and core strengths has been the relative dynamism that has produced more inventions, more patents, more actionable industrial ideas, more freeedom, and more wealth than at any other time in any other nation-state in the world, it would be imprudent bordering on reckless to suppress those synergies in the name of industrial policy.

In the end, I rather doubt that Pearlstein is truly on board with the course of action he suggests.  In response to a question presented to him on the Washington Post live web chat yesterday about how the Chinese would react if his proposal were implemented, Pearlstein wrote:

They’d make a huge stink. They’d cancel some contracts. They’d slap on some tariffs of their own. They’d launch an appeal with the World Trade Organization. It would not be costless to us – getting into fights never is. But after a year, once they saw we were serious, they would find a way to begin accomodating [sic] us in significant ways, and if we respond with a positive tit for tat, things could finally improve. They’ve been testing us for years and what they discovered was that we were easy to push around. So guess what – they pushed us around.

I’m willing to chalk up Pearlstein’s diatribe to pent-up frustration.  But let me end with this admonition from that May Cato paper:

 [I]ndignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.  China is a sovereign nation.  Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people).  Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous.  Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft.  These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.

The Obama Labor Market

In a recent speech on the economy at Carnegie Mellon, President Obama took great pains to remind us that he inherited an economy that was “shrinking at an alarming rate.”  Of course his implication was that everything wrong with the economy today is George Bush’s fault.  While Bush does deserve considerable blame for current recess, a new working paper by economists at the University of Michigan and the New York and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks paints a picture of a recession that was on par with previous deep recessions until well into 2009, when the labor market started to deviate, for the worst, from past trends.

For instance the authors find that during the first part of the current recession, labor force participation remained high, despite increasing unemployment, yet starting in May 2009 the labor force participation rate fell at its steepest rate since the 1950s.

The authors also focus on what economists call “Okun’s Law” - which shows a relationship between GDP growth and employment.  Historically Okun’s Law has shown that for every 2% GDP falls below trend, unemployment increases about 1 percent.  Under the Bush half of this recession, that historical relationship continued to hold.  Yet under Obama it broke down, and not in a good way.

The paper also examines the relationship between unemployment and posted job vacancies, called the “Beveridge curve” by economists.  They also find that the Obama economy has been far outside of this historical relationship, so there has been growth in vacancies but little improvement in the unemployment numbers.

The paper offers a description of recent labor market trends, without being able to completely explain why current trends have been so different (and worse) than previous recessions.  The authors do calculate that the extensions in unemployment insurance have likely increased unemployment by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

The real story, however, which this working paper misses, is that in the Obama economy, massive uncertainty coming from Washington and the increasingly intrusive nature of government is keeping employers from hiring, even when they are expanding output.  President Obama needs to get past the blame game and start moving us back toward a country that rewards private enterprise and values free markets.

Food Stamps on Campus

Food stamp usage is on an upsurge as a result of the economic downturn and liberalized eligibility. Thanks to some good journalistic work from Aleksandra Kulczuga of the Daily Caller, we’re getting a better picture of how government dependency is spreading to a new generation.

Kulczuga reports that college students are increasingly going on the dole thanks to encouragement from college officials and poverty organizations dedicated to fomenting government dependency.

From the article:

Adam Sylvain, a sophomore at Virginia’s George Mason University, recounted a recent conversation with friends in his dorm room. “My roommate told me he applied for food stamps, and they told him he qualified for $200 a month in benefits,” Sylvain said. “He’s here on scholarship and he saves over $5,000 each summer in cash.”

“A few of our other friends who were in the room also said if there were able to, they would get food stamps … They think that if they’re eligible it’s the government’s fault, so they might as well,” Sylvain said.

Students at GMU can buy a meal plan for $1,275 that provides 10 meals a week for the semester — that’s $71 a week.

When I was in college, my friends and I worked during the school year and through the summer to fund our expenses. My father worked multiple jobs to pay his way through college while supporting a young wife. He grew up in a family headed by a single mother that relied on extended family and charities to help them through tough times. He may have been eligible for food stamps in college, but he would have never taken a government handout.

Today’s generation seems to be different. This Salon article tells of unemployed college grads using food stamps to purchase organic food at high-end grocers like Whole Foods.

From the article:

At Magida’s brick row house in Baltimore, she and Mak minced garlic while observing that one of the upsides of unemployment was having plenty of time to cook elaborate meals, and that among their friends, they had let go of any bad feelings about how their food was procured.

“It’s not a thing people feel ashamed of, at least not around here,” said Mak. “It feels like a necessity right now.”

Savory aromas wafted through the kitchen as a table was set with a heaping plate of Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.

Remember that many of these students probably had their college educations subsidized by the government as well.

Son of the Stimulus

Like the sequel to a horror film, the politicians in Washington just passed another stimulus proposal. Only this time, they’re calling it a “jobs bill” in hopes that a different name will yield a better result.

But if past performance is any indicator of future results, this is bad news for taxpayers. By every possible measure, the first stimulus was a flop. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, look at what the White House said would happen.

The Administration early last year said that doing nothing would mean an unemployment rate of nine percent. Spending $787 billion, they said, was necessary to keep the unemployment rate at eight percent instead.

So what happened? As millions of Americans can painfully attest, the jobless rate actually climbed to 10 percent, a full percentage point higher than Obama claimed it would be if no bill was passed.

The President and his people also are arguing that the so-called stimulus is responsible for two million jobs. Yet according to the Department of Labor, total employment has dropped significantly – by more than three million – since the so-called stimulus was adopted. The White House wants us to believe this sow’s ear is really a silk purse by claiming that the economy actually would have lost more than five million jobs without all the new pork-barrel spending. This is the infamous “jobs saved or created” number. The advantage of this approach is that there are no objective benchmarks. Unemployment could climb to 15 percent, but Obama’s people can always say there would be two million fewer jobs without all the added government spending.

To be fair, this does not mean that Obama’s supposed stimulus caused unemployment to jump to 10 percent. In all likelihood, a big jump in unemployment was probably going to occur regardless of whether politicians squandered another $787 billion. The White House was foolish to make specific predictions that now can be used to discredit the stimulus, but it’s also true that Obama inherited a mess – and that mess seems to be worse than most people thought.

Moreover, it takes time for an Administration to implement changes and impact the economy’s performance. Reagan took office in early 1981 during an economic crisis, for instance, and it took about two years for his policies to rejuvenate the economy. It certainly seems fair to also give Obama time to get the economy moving again.

That being said, there is little reason to expect good results for Obama in the future. Reagan reversed the big-government policies of his predecessor. Obama, by contrast, is continuing Bush’s big-government approach. Heck, the only real difference in their economic policies is that Bush was a borrow-and-spender and Obama is a borrow-and-tax-and-spender.

This raises an interesting question: Since last year’s stimulus was a flop, isn’t the Administration making a big mistake by doing the same thing all over again?

The President’s people actually are being very clever. Recessions don’t last forever. Indeed, the average downturn lasts only about one year. And since the recession began back in late 2007, it’s quite likely that the economic recovery already has begun (the National Bureau of Economic Research is the organization that eventually will announce when the recession officially ended).

So let’s consider the political incentives for the Administration. Last year’s stimulus is seen as a flop. So as the economy recovers this year, it will be difficult for Obama to claim that this was because of a pork-filled spending bill adopted early last year. But with the passing of a supposed jobs bill, that puts them in a position to take credit for a recovery that was already happening anyway.

That may be smart politics, but it’s not good economics. The issue has never been whether the economy would climb out of recession. The real challenge is whether the economy will enjoy good growth once the recovery begins. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration policies of bigger government – combined with the Bush Administration policies of bigger government – will permanently lower the baseline growth of the United States.

If America becomes a big-government welfare state like France, then it’s quite likely that we will suffer from French-style stagnation and lower living standards.

Tuesday Links

  • Price controls have failed in the past and there is no reason to think they will work now. So why is the president proposing price controls on health care? Michael Tanner: “Attempts to control prices by government fiat ignore basic economic laws – and the result could be disastrous for the American health-care system.”

Public Schools = One Big Jobs Program

Who said public schooling is all about the adults in the system and not the kids? Everyone knows it’s even more basic than that: Public schooling is a jobs program, pure and simple. At least, that’s what one can’t help but conclude as our little “stimulus” turns one-year old today.

“State fiscal relief really has kept hundreds of thousands of teachers and firefighters and first responders on the job,” declared White House Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer today.

Throwing almost $100 billion at education sure as heck ought to have kept teachers in their jobs, and the unemployment numbers suggest teachers have had a pretty good deal relative to the folks paying their salaries. While unemployment in “educational services” – which consists predominantly of teachers, but also includes other education-related occupations – hasn’t returned to its recent, April 2008 low of 2.2 percent, in January 2010 it was well below the national 9.7 percent rate, sitting at 5.9 percent.

Of course, retaining all of these teachers might be of value to taxpayers if having so many of them had a positive impact on educational outcomes. But looking at decades of achievement data one can’t help but conclude that keeping teacher jobs at all costs truly isn’t about the kids, but the adults either employed in education, or trying to get the votes of those employed in education. As the following chart makes clear, we have added teachers in droves for decades without improving ultimate achievement at all:

(Sources: Digest of Education Statistics, Table 64, and National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Trend results)

Since the early 1970s, achievement scores for 17-year-olds – our schools’ “final products” – haven’t improved one bit, while the number of teachers per 100 students is almost 50 percent greater. If anything, then, we have far too many teachers, and would do taxpayers, and the economy, a great service by letting some of them go. Citizens could then keep more of their money and invest in private, truly economy-growing ventures. But no, we’re supposed to celebrate the endless continuation of debilitating economic – and educational – waste.

You’ll have to pardon me for not considering this an accomplishment I should cheer about.

Globalization: Curse or Cure?

Globalization holds tremendous promise to improve human welfare but can also cause conflicts and crises. How will competition for resources, employment, and growth shape economic policies among developed nations as they attempt to maintain productivity growth, social protections, and extensive political and cultural freedoms?

In a new study, Cato scholar Jagadeesh Gokhale offers policy recommendations for developed nations to reduce globalization’s negative effects and, indeed, harness it for solving economic challenges.