Tag Archives: Paul Krugman

If It’s The Economy…

The “Big Lie” has worked so well with the GOP base (polls show some 58% of Republicans believe that Trump really won the election) that they’ve extended the tactic. If James Carville’s famous 1992 motto–“It’s the Economy, Stupid” was right, then lying to an astonishingly credulous  base  about the economic performance of the Biden Administration should be a no-brainer.

Granted, the criticism bears virtually no relationship to reality, as a slew of economists routinely document and as Jennifer Rubin recently pointed out in the Washington Post. But facts are clearly irrelevant to Republican party “leaders” who insist–in the face of millions of deaths worldwide– that COVID is a hoax. Also that California’s wildfires were set by Jewish space lasers, and that Democrats eat small children.

The 64-Thousand-Dollar question, of course (young people, Google the reference…) is whether Carville’s insight was right. Do verifiable economic facts on the ground influence voters, or is misinformation being sold by politicians with an ax to grind a more potent motivator?

Rubin begins by reminding readers of the success of the stimulus.

Quite simply, stimulus packages kept the economy and workers afloat during the pandemic, setting the stage for an economic surge when employees could return to work. The Post reports, “The U.S. economic recovery from the covid pandemic was the strongest of any of the big Western economies. That is in large part thanks to the multiple rounds of government stimulus that totaled at least $5.2 trillion.”

Without a single Republican vote, Biden passed an economic plan that, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rate policy, proved to be precisely the recipe needed to help stave off a long-term recession. The Post reports, “The Biden stimulus pushed the bank accounts of even the lowest-income Americans to unexpected heights. On average, they had more than twice as much in their savings accounts as they did when the pandemic began.”

The effects of the stimulus are only a part of the story. The job market–responding to pent-up demand–is more favorable than it has been in a long time. Unemployment is 4.2 percent, and according to The Wall Street Journal, applications for unemployment benefits, a proxy for layoffs, have trended near five-decade lows. Jobless claims are at the lowest level since 1969.

Perhaps the best news is that workers — especially low-wage workers — have been the biggest beneficiaries of this surprisingly robust economy. Rubin quotes Steven Ratner, who noted that, as the economy rebounded from the pandemic,

the size of wage increases began to recover, especially for less-well-off Americans, in part because of increases by some states in their minimum wages. The many Covid-related federal stimulus programs helped push the growth rates in pay for many workers to levels not seen since the early 2000s. Thanks in part to these programs, wages are growing fastest for the bottom 25 percent of workers.

Rubin notes that this data contradicts Republican’s longtime insistence that wage increases mean fewer jobs–an insistence increasingly at odds with that pesky thing called “evidence.” Not only that,  the past year has seen some notable successes in unionizing, allowing American workers to demand both higher wages and better working conditions.

If Rubin and multiple economists are correct, what accounts for the evidently widespread belief that economic times are bad? Paul Krugman asks–and answers–that question.

Overall the economic picture looks pretty good — indeed, in many ways this looks like the best economic recovery in many decades.

Yet consumers appear to be feeling very downbeat — or at least that’s what they tell surveys like the famous Michigan Survey of Consumers. And this perception of a bad economy is clearly weighing on President Biden’s approval rating. Which raises the question: Are consumers right? Is this a bad economy despite data showing it as very good? And if it really isn’t a bad economy, why does the public say it is?…

One clue is that there’s an incredible amount of partisan skew in the responses. Republicans say, bizarrely, that current economic conditions are much worse than they were in March 2009, when the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month…

Another clue is that you get very different answers when you ask people “How are you doing?” rather than “How is the economy doing?” The Langer Consumer Confidence Index asks people separately about the national economy — where their assessment is dismal — and about their personal financial situation, where their rating is high by historical standards.

So–the midterm elections will give us a clue to the proper interpretation of Carville’s axiom. Will people vote their personal economic situations? Or will they vote the faux reality peddled by their political cult?

I guess we’ll find out.

 

 

The Great Compression

In a recent newsletter, Paul Krugman referenced a 1991 economics paper in glowing terms. He said that he’s read many economics papers during his career, but very few that changed the way he sees the world.

This one, evidently, did.

Krugman began his discussion by reminiscing; as a Baby Boomer, he’d grown up at a time when extremes of wealth and poverty were far less pronounced than they are these days–a time when middle managers and better-paid blue-collar workers were more or less  financial equals. It was a time, as he reminds us, when  C.E.O.s of major companies were paid “around 20 times as much as the average worker, compared with more than 200 to 1 today.”

Although female and Black workers certainly weren’t equal, the extremes of wealth we see today–the enormous gap between the rich and the rest– were inconceivable, and the middle class was substantial. (I still remember a long-ago political science class that attributed national stability to the existence of a sizable middle-class, among other things.)

And we took it for granted. A more or less middle-class society, almost everyone assumed, was the state toward which an advanced economy naturally evolved.

Not so much, we learned as the boomers turned middle-aged. The future of inequality wasn’t what we expected it to be; America today has more or less returned to Gilded Age disparities in income and wealth.

The question, of course, is “why did this happen? Why isn’t the future of inequality what we expected?

The paper he was praising–“The Great Compression”– was written by Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo, and it showed that,  as Krugman put it,  America had gone to bed in 1939 in the Gilded Age and woke up in 1945 as the middle-class nation of his childhood, where wages were–as the paper labeled them–“compressed.”

Some of the reasons for that compression of wages are obvious:  World War II required a controlled economy. Wage increases were regulated– and the rules tended to be more generous to less well-paid workers. But those rules, and the economic controls, were lifted after the war.

Why didn’t things spring back to where they had been before once wage and price controls had been lifted?

One answer, as Krugman demonstrates, was the emergence of unions.

A strong union movement, it seems, was able to lock in the new wage norms created by the war for several decades after the war was over. And the rise of unions was clearly linked to politics: first the New Deal, then the war, created favorable environments for union organizing.

Another important element was public policy. Policy, as Krugman and many other economists can attest, can shape a fairer, flatter, more inclusive economy.

What does this tell us about the future of inequality? On one side, it’s encouraging: high inequality isn’t something unavoidable, the necessary consequence of implacable technological forces: political action can create a much less unequal society. On the other side, both the politics of the New Deal and, even more so, the policy environment of World War II, were pretty unique. Progressives are, in general, delighted with how activist the Biden administration is proving; but despite Republican cries of “socialism,” its actions are far more modest than what happened in the ’30s and ’40s.

The big question is how much of the Great Compression we can achieve through less dramatic policies, in a political environment where spending one percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure seems radical. No, I don’t know the answer.

Our ability to fashion public policies that reinvigorate and regrow that all-important, stabilizing middle class depends significantly on a widespread recognition of the economic reality that everyone does better when everyone does better.

Even the most creative entrepreneur cannot innovate and profit in the absence of a supportive physical and social infrastructure and enough people with the wherewithal to pay for his product.

An Intriguing Analysis

Paul Krugman recently had a column that–almost incidentally–amplified the findings I reported on yesterday from Democracy Corp’s focus groups.

He began by noting that Biden simply doesn’t arouse the same degree of animosity that Obama did. Krugman leaves it there, but the reason for the moderation of vituperation is pretty obvious: Biden’s a White guy. Yes, he’s a hated Democrat/Socialist/Leftie/Whatever, but at least he’s not Black.

Krugman focused on the lower level of animus and hostility aimed at Biden by Republicans, and speculated over what that “low energy” opposition might mean for the prospects of upcoming legislative proposals.

Just about every analyst I follow asserted, almost until the last moment, that $1.9 trillion was an opening bid for the rescue plan and that the eventual bill would be substantially smaller. Instead, Democrats — who, by standard media convention, are always supposed to be in “disarray” — held together and did virtually everything they had promised. How did that happen?

Much of the post-stimulus commentary emphasizes the lessons Democrats learned from the Obama years, when softening policies in an attempt to win bipartisan support achieved nothing but a weaker-than-needed economic recovery. But my sense is that this is only part of the story. There has also been a change on the other side of the aisle: namely, Republicans have lost their knack for demonizing progressive policies.

Krugman is careful to note that the decrease in demonization applies to policies (after all, lots of Republicans still believe that Democrats managed to steal a federal election at the same time they were sexually exploiting and then feasting on small children…) But as he notes, there’s been an absence of “bloodcurdling warnings about runaway inflation and currency debasement, not to mention death panels.”

True, every once in a while some G.O.P. legislator mumbles one of the usual catchphrases — “job-killing left-wing policies,” “budget-busting,” “socialism.” But there has been no concerted effort to get the message out. In fact, the partisan policy critique has been so muted that almost a third of the Republican rank and file believe that the party supports the plan, even though it didn’t receive a single Republican vote in Congress.

Krugman notes a number of possible explanations: the obvious hypocrisy of screaming about deficits under Obama and then incurring huge ones via tax cuts for the rich; the fact that none of their past, dire warnings of inflation under Obama–or their rosy predictions of a boom under Trump–materialized (although, as he points out ” inconvenient facts haven’t bothered them much in the past.”)

Or perhaps Republicans no longer know how to govern. They are trapped in a culture war of their own creation. As Krugman notes, while the Democrats were fashioning legislation and hammering out policy compromises, Republicans were screaming about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head.

In short, the prospects for a big spend-and-tax bill are quite good, because Democrats know what they want to achieve and are willing to put in the work to make it happen — while Republicans don’t and aren’t.

I have been extremely happy with what the Biden Administration has done–and failed to do–thus far. This is a highly competent operation. What is undoubtedly true, however, is that one reason the path has been smoother for Joe Biden is simply because his skin is white.

And that is an incredibly sad commentary on the current state of America.

 

Impeachment And The Economy

In a recent column, Paul Krugman opined that–among other benefits that some of us see (like potentially ridding ourselves of a severely mentally-ill President who has the launch codes)–the Impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats in the House will be good for the economy.

This seemed counterintuitive, since we have always heard that the markets respond negatively to uncertainty–and as we are seeing, Trump’s behavior when he is cornered is nothing if not unpredictable.

Krugman’s column anticipated Pelosi’s announcement, but applauded Impeachment’s probable effect on the economy.

If there’s one thing the tweeter in chief believes, it is that what’s good for Donald Trump is good for America. A little over a month ago (although it seems like much longer) he told a rally that “you have no choice but to vote for me,” because his electoral defeat would lead to a market crash.

But a funny thing has happened over the course of Trump’s latest terrible, horrible, very bad, no good two weeks. Suddenly, impeachment (though not removal from office) has gone from highly unlikely to highly likely. In fact, given the explosive nature of the now-revealed whistle-blower complaint, I don’t really understand how he can not be impeached.

And the financial markets have basically shrugged.

As Krugman notes, on the surface, this is strange. No matter what the outcome of the Impeachment proceedings, while they are going on, they are pretty much the only game in town: little or nothing else will happen. The administration’s legislative agenda will come to a screeching halt. Why doesn’t this worry investors?

The answer is, “What legislative agenda?”

Even when Trump’s party controlled both houses of Congress, he had only two major legislative initiatives. One was a big tax cut for corporations and the wealthy that will generate trillions in deficits but doesn’t seem to have done much for the economy. The other was an attempt to take away health insurance from around 30 million Americans, which didn’t pass.

It’s pretty obvious that, between watching Fox News and tweeting, Trump has had very little time for legislating, or for that matter, governing. (He has also given us ample reason to believe he has absolutely no idea how government works or how legislation is passed, which may explain his disinterest in both.)

To be fair, legislation isn’t the only way presidents can make policy, and the prospect of impeachment will probably exert a chilling effect on Trump’s ability to pursue policy through executive fiat. But here’s the thing: Since most of what Trump is trying to do is bad for America, whatever paralysis impeachment may induce is all to the good.

For Trump has, in effect, been waging a war on competence.

We’ve noticed.

In Trump’s vision of government, career diplomats who do actual diplomacy, experienced regulators who actually try to enforce regulations, researchers who produce objective data — up to and including weather forecasters whose predictions he doesn’t like — are all part of a deep state that’s out to get him. So Trump officials have been engaged in a systematic campaign to degrade America’s Civil Service, driving out people who know what they’re doing and replacing them with political hacks.

I’ve encountered a few members of Trump’s base, and their justifications for supporting him are consistent with Krugman’s description. Only “elitists” believe that people in government actually need to know something about governing, or  have experience or expertise in the subject-matter with which they are engaged. Any businessperson–well, any white businessman— can run  government.

Hell, you don’t need no fancy-shmancy degrees or experience. Just look at all those “best people” that Trump’s installed who are getting rid of all those silly rules and regulations that just get in the way of making a profit.

As Krugman says,

An impeachment inquiry will surely have a chilling effect on the Trumpian project of government degradation. It may not come to a dead halt, but Trump’s team of cronies will be distracted; they will be less brazen; they will be worrying about more potential whistle-blowers going public about what they’re doing.

In short, paralysis can be a very good thing. I’m rooting for it.

 

 

Those Tax Cuts: Take Two

Reactions to the Trump/GOP tax bill have mostly focused on the domestic consequences of that fiscal abomination: the steeply rising deficits and national debt; the “no show”  economic boost; the unconscionable further enrichment of the already obscenely rich; and Mitch McConnell’s stated intent to address that newly massive national debt by cutting programs that benefit the poor and elderly, notably Medicare and Social Security.

What hasn’t been widely reported is what Paul Krugman calls “foreign aid.”

Donald Trump often complains that the media don’t give him credit for his achievements. And I can think of at least one case where that’s true. As far I can tell, almost nobody is reporting that he has presided over a huge — but hidden — increase in foreign aid, the money America gives to foreigners. In fact, the hidden Trump program, currently running at around $40 billion a year, is probably the biggest giveaway to other nations since the Marshall Plan.

Unfortunately, the aid isn’t going either to poor countries or to America’s allies. Instead, it’s going to wealthy foreign investors.

The 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act–which, as Krugman reminds us, is the only major legislation Trump can claim thus far– cut taxes on corporations. Significantly. As credible economists predicted, it led to a drastic reduction in tax revenues. Krugman pegs the shortfall at $140 billion just the past year.

Supporters of the bill claimed that the benefits would be passed on to workers in the form of higher wages, and they made a big deal over a flurry of corporate bonus announcements in early 2018. But those bonuses weren’t actually very big, and they didn’t continue.

In fact, at this point it’s clear that the bonus surge, such as it was, was all about tax avoidance: By moving up payments they were going to make anyway, corporations got to deduct the expense at the old, higher tax rate. Now that this option has expired, bonuses have dropped back to their normal level, or even a bit lower.

Job creation? Investments in the business? Nah.

The benefits of the tax cut have gone almost entirely to corporate shareholders, in the form of increased dividends and capital gains from corporations using their windfall to buy back their own stocks.

And a big share of these gains to shareholders has gone to foreigners.

Over all, foreigners own about 35 percent of the equity in corporations subject to U.S. taxes. And as a result, foreign investors have received around 35 percent of the benefitsof the tax cut. As I said, that’s more than $40 billion a year.

Krugman compares Trump’s gift to foreign investors with the amounts we expend on foreign aid.

In 2017, the U.S. spent $51 billion on “international affairs,” but much of that was either the cost of operating embassies or military assistance. The Trump tax break for overseas investors is considerably bigger than the total amount we spend on foreign aid proper.

Now, the U.S. economy is almost inconceivably huge, producing more than $20 trillion worth of goods and services every year. We’re also a country that investors trust to honor its debts, so the tax cut, irresponsible as it is, isn’t causing any immediate fiscal stress.

So Trump’s giveaway to foreign investors isn’t going to make or break us, although it’s probably enough to ensure that the tax cut will be, over all, a net drain on economic growth: Even if the tax cut has some positive effect on the total income generated here (which is doubtful), this will probably be more than offset by the increased share of that income accruing to foreigners rather than U.S. citizens.

Still, even in America, $40 billion here, $40 billion there, and eventually you’re talking about real money. Furthermore, it does seem worth pointing out that even as Trump boasts about taking money away from foreigners, his actual policies are doing exactly the opposite.

I seriously doubt that Trump understands any of this. After all, it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t the foggiest notion how tariffs work (or don’t). Or how government works, for that matter.

We shouldn’t be shocked to discover that the President is an economic ignoramus.