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.
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.
Over at CongressDaily, Julie Rovner has a great piece on the difficulties involved in generating and using comparative-effectiveness research (read: evidence that can improve the quality and reduce the cost of medical care). Rovner cites a recent New England Journal of Medicine article about the obstacles to conducting CER, and a recent article from Health Affairs that finds consumers tend to trust their doctor's judgment more than evidence-based treatment guidelines.
In a paper titled, "A Better Way to Generate and Use Comparative-Effectiveness Research," I explain how a string of government interventions -- from state licensing of medical professionals and health insurance, to the tax preference for job-based health insurance, to Medicare and Medicaid -- have reduced both patients' demand for evidence about which medical interventions work best, as well as the market's ability to supply that evidence. In that paper, I predict that efforts like the CER funding in the "stimulus" bill and ObamaCare's "Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute" will fail, just as all such government efforts have failed in the past.
If you want to generate evidence about which medical interventions work best, and have people use that evidence, then you need to liberalize the U.S. health care sector.
When it comes to banking policy, there are few people I respect more than Jonathan Macey and Arnold Kling; so when these two, independently, argue that we should be breaking up the largest banks, it is idea that merits consideration. Yet I still have my doubts.
First, lets start with what we are fairly certain of. There is a large empirical literature that suggest most US mega-banks are beyond their efficient size. There is a good survey of the literature by former Fed Economist Allen Berger . So, at a minimum, the academic literature suggests the largest banks are beyond a size that is justified by the social benefits.
However, there is also a small literature that suggests more concentrated banking systems are more stable, and less prone to crisis. Some of this literature has grown out of research efforts by the World Bank. While this literature is largely cross-country comparisons, recalling our own banking history gives several examples - the savings & loan crisis, the mass of small banks failures in the 1920s and 1930s, and current day Georgia - where lots of small bank failures have been associated with significant economic damage. So, at minimum, there is some question of whether breaking up the largest banks would give us a more stable, less crisis-prone system. In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that breaking up the banks would make our financial system more fragile.
To some extent, the debate over breaking up the large banks is about reducing political power. The argument is that, because of their vast resources, these large banks unduly influence and capture our political system. Undoubtedly, I believe the largest banks have substantial influence over both our legislative and regulatory systems. However, so do smaller banks. From my seven years as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I would definitely argue that the Independent Community Banks Association (ICBA), as a group, has far more pull than does say Bank of America, as a single company. One need only witness the various exemptions for small banks in the Dodd bill, for instance from the consumer protection bureau, to illustrate the lobbying power of small bankers. One could also argue that the economic history of progressive era legislation, like the Sherman Act, is one of smaller, organized interests winning against larger sized firms. Despite its appeal, the assertion that bigger is always better in politics is just an assertion. Yet this is at heart an empirical argument, and perhaps one that can be tested. Until then, I still have my doubts.
Buyers, beware: President Barack Obama says his health care overhaul will lower premiums by double digits, but check the fine print...
The [Congressional Budget Office] concluded that premiums for people buying their own coverage would go up by an average of 10 percent to 13 percent, compared with the levels they'd reach without the legislation...
"People are likely to not buy the same low-value policies they are buying now," said health economist Len Nichols of George Mason University. "If they did buy the same value plans ... the premium would be lower than it is now. This makes the White House statement true. But is it possibly misleading for some people? Sure."
Nichols' comments are also misleading -- which makes the president's statement not just misleading but untrue.
Under ObamaCare, people would not have the option to buy the same low-cost plans they do today. That's the whole problem: under an individual mandate, everybody must purchase the minimum level of coverage specified by the government. That minimum benefits package would be more expensive than the coverage chosen by most people in the individual market. Their premiums would rise because ObamaCare would take away their right to choose a more economical policy.
Note also that the CBO predicts premiums would rise by an average of 10-13 percent in the individual market. Consumers who currently purchase the most economic policies would see larger premium increases.
Finally, the Obama plan would also force millions of uninsured Americans to purchase health insurance at premiums higher than current-law premium levels, which they have already rejected as being too high. Their premium expenditures would rise from $0 to thousands of dollars. Yet the CBO counts that implicit tax as reducing average premiums, because those consumers are generally healthier-than-average. Only in Washington is a tax counted as a savings.
In a letter to congressional leaders, President Obama wrote of his openness to including Republican proposals in his health care legislation.
Dropping a few Republican ideas into a government takeover of health care is like sterilizing the needle before a lethal injection: a nice thought, but the ultimate outcome is the same.
- Two of the four Republican ideas – federal grants to states that adopt medical malpractice liability reforms, and ratcheting upward Medicare’s physician-price controls – would increase government spending.
- The president's health savings accounts (HSAs) proposal would merely loosen the noose around consumer-directed health plans.
- Undercover investigations in Medicare and Medicaid are likely to be as unsuccessful as past efforts to combat fraud.
This is not bipartisanship. President Obama is creating the illusion of bipartisanship while taking the most partisan route possible: forcing his legislation through Congress via reconciliation.
(Cross-posted at National Journal's Health Care Arena.)
Perhaps I am a little confused, but didn’t the Obama Administration tell the American public only months ago that TARP was turning a profit? But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?
If the effort is really about deficit reduction, then it completely misses the mark. Any serious deficit reduction plan has to start with Medicare and Social Security. Assessing bank fees is nothing more than a rounding error in terms of the deficit. Let’s put aside the politics and get serious about both fixing our financial system and bringing our fiscal house into order. The problem driving our deficits is not a lack of revenues, aside from effects of the recession, revenues have remained stable as a percent of GDP, the problem is runaway spending.
The bank tax would also miss what one has to guess is Obama's target, the bank CEOs. Econ 101 tells us (maybe the President can ask Larry Summers for some tutoring) corporations do not bear the incidence of taxes, their consumers and shareholders do. So the real outcome of this proposed tax would be to increase consumer banking costs while reducing the value of bank equity, all at a time when banks are already under-capitalized.
But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?
Three items in the news this week remind us why we should be glad we live in a more global economy. While American consumers remain cautious, American companies and workers are finding increasing opportunities in markets abroad:
- Sales of General Motors vehicles continue to slump in the United States, but they are surging in China. The company announced this week that sales in China of GM-branded cars and trucks were up 67 percent in 2009, to 1.8 million vehicles. If current trends continue, within a year or two GM will be selling more vehicles in China than in the United States.
- James Cameron’s 3-D movie spectacular “Avatar” just surpassed $1 billion in global box-office sales. Two-thirds of its revenue has come from abroad, with France, Germany, and Russia the leading markets. This has been a growing pattern for U.S. films. Hollywood—which loves to skewer business and capitalism—is thriving in a global market.
- Since 2003, the middle class in Brazil has grown by 32 million. As the Washington Post reports, “Once hobbled with high inflation and perennially susceptible to worldwide crises, Brazil now has a vibrant consumer market …” Brazil's overall economy is bigger than either India or Russia, and its per-capita GDP is nearly double that of China.
As I note in my Cato book Mad about Trade, American companies and workers will find their best opportunities in the future by selling to the emerging global middle class in Brazil, China, India and elsewhere. Without access to more robust markets abroad, the Great Recession of 2008-09 would have been more like the Great Depression.