Growth, trade balance, and tax policy
wonders how we can reduce trade deficits to increase growth, especially in a world where everyone else is trying to do the same thing. The simple answer is that we can't and almost certainly shouldn't try.
The US has been running a trade deficit for almost forty years now, leading to our enduring status as The World's Largest Debtor nation. That status only tells half the story. That debt doesn't reflect money we have to repay, in the normal sense of the word. It reflects the fact that foreign entities own more American assets than we own overseas assets. Some of those assets are bonds that require repayment, but others are factories or real estate with overseas owners. And while it's true that foreigners own more assets in the US than we own overseas, our foreign assets are also enormous. They're so large, in fact, that while we're a debtor nation, we earn more from our foreign assets than foreign owners earn from our domestic ones, a situation that has persisted for many years.
Why is this the case? It turns out that investments in the US are safer than similar investments abroad.
As a result, investors are willing to accept lower returns. As long as other countries are rich enough to invest here and our assets are viewed as safe, the dollar will be stronger than our trade balance would suggest, and our trade balance will suffer as a result.
It's a form of Resource Curse
, where investment safety inflates the value of our currency and makes other economic sectors less competitive, but the conditions that make investments safe are, in fact, good things. We don't want to get rid of them.
As Dean Baker concludes
in the article Kevin referenced, we need to stimulate the economy through government spending. We can't borrow indefinitely to support that, so we should raise taxes.
That's not what we'll actually do, of course. We'll keep lowering taxes on the rich, hoping that they'll stop hoarding money and invest it instead. They won't do so, because they'll see how poor everyone else is and conclude that there's not much profit to be made.
From today's Chronicle, three stories. The first
covers the Occupy effort to disrupt port activities. The second
talks about the disconnect between the Occupy movement and blacks. The third
is a column by Chip Johnson, talking about how Occupy is doing it all wrong, because they're being disruptive.
The three articles share a common theme: Occupy protests are too disruptive. Disruptive activity hurts people and detracts from the message. If the protesters would behave themselves and not get in the way of people living their lives, they'd be more effective.
Buried in the second article, however, is the following passage:
"Why don't people come out here and Occupy about the violence in our neighborhood?" said Adams, a 44-year-old project manager at a substance-abuse clinic. Every Saturday, she and other members of her church stand on street corners and hold signs asking people to "Stop the Violence."
A search for Charlene Adams on sfgate showed up nothing prior to the article about Occupy. A search for "Stop the Violence" also came up empty.
The article about how blacks feel disconnected from the Occupy movement is right on many points. Black communities have been in crisis for a long time, and no one has reacted. No one started an Occupy movement on their behalf. No one took over downtown Oakland in protest of inner city violence. Protests against injustice that take place only when injustice personally affects the protesters do show moral weakness.
But all three articles miss a fundamental point. The Occupy protests have been successful at getting their point across precisely because they have been disruptive, because they didn't take place on sidewalks, on weekends, out of the view and out of the way of the powerful. The Occupy movement should champion the neighborhoods of Oakland, but if they do so in the neighborhoods of Oakland--rather than downtown--if they do so on the weekends when it doesn't interfere with business, the Chronicle will ignore it, just as they've ignored Ms. Adams' weekend protests against violence.
the narrowest result
Some Senators have introduced a resolution to reverse Citizens United
. They draw their amendment as narrowly as possible, because everything else is hunky-dory. The Citizens United decision is the root cause of all our problems.
it's not about objectivity
complains about the behavior of Politico, reporting on the Cain and Perry camps as if it weren't part of the story, and says
The myth of objectivity in journalism can't die a fast enough death.
But it's never been about objectivity. It's been about the appearance
of objectivity. It's always been OK (and unavoidable) to have political views, as long as you can claim that you don't.
handing out free money
Atrios periodically suggests handing out free money
. As he's pointed out, free money gets handed out all the time. Since January 2008, about $2T has been handed out
. It could have done a lot of good if it had been given to those who needed it.
Thank you, James Madison
Our son has difficulty reading. Two years ago, my wife found out about NIMAC, a national center for distributing textbooks in electronic form to print-challenged students (the blind, dyslexics, etc.). NIMAC was created as a result of IDEA 2004, to facilitate student access to texts. Two years later, we're still trying to get access, even though our son's eligibility for the materials has never been questioned.
The story is a common one to anyone who has ever tried to navigate an unfamiliar bureaucracy: many paths followed to dead-ends, months spent getting a particular authorization only to find that it was the wrong one, months wasted getting authorizations from uncooperative or semi-cooperative third-parties that turned out to be irrelevant, etc.
The particulars of the story aren't that important, but as the process dragged on, it became clear that the process was designed more to deny access than to facilitate it. The rules are arcane, the documentation hurdles substantial. Even when a student gets access to materials, downloads require the active participation of a public official (at least that's how it appears to us now; we think we're close, but we haven't yet been successful).
"Why," we asked ourselves, "would you create a program to help students, then make it so difficult to use that it would deny services for years?" Why even bother?
It turns out we can thank James Madison and the other authors of our Constitution. The Constitution doesn't merely tell the government to promote invention and creation. It prescribes how to do so
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
IDEA required publishers to provide their texts in electronic form, free of charge, but such a requirement creates constitutional problems. In the words of a friend of ours, 'If the government mandates “free” anything, the courts won’t uphold it without a showing of significant need and also a significant administrative check on unauthorized access.' In order to comply with the Constitution, the government has to make access difficult.
It's only two years. And counting. Thanks, Mr. Madison.
Update: I misunderstood the point my friend was making and then misinterpreted what I read. The Congress isn't required to give exclusivity, but apparently courts have interpreted such a grant as the creation of property, after which an act which reduces it is a "taking." The government might be able to limit the original exclusivity, but it's easier to make access to federal funds contingent on providing access, then making barriers to access so high that almost no one can qualify, and those that do, don't do so quickly.
monetary vs fiscal policy
and Brad Delong
are talking about how to get the economy running again, but they're economists so they immediately start talking about models, expectations, interest rates, etc. I'm not an economist (even after reading several textbooks), so that doesn't do much for me. Models necessarily abstract the real world, and while they can teach us a great deal by doing so, they leave a lot out. And sometimes, what they leave out is as important as what they tell us.
When Krugman and Delong say we're in a liquidity trap, they talk about models, graphs, equilibrium points, and other mathematical concepts. They rarely talk about what a liquidity trap means in terms of individual actors. If low interest rates can't stimulate the economy, it means that 1) the low interest rates don't affect consumption, and 2) low interest rates don't affect investment. In the first case, that probably means that the low interest rates we see in bond markets aren't, in fact, getting passed through to consumers. In the second case, it may mean that businesses aren't seeing low interest rates, or it may mean that even with low-interest loans, businesses aren't seeing opportunities for profitable investments.
So, what do consumer interest rates look like? Mortgage rates are low, but the housing market is so soft that investing in a house looks like a risky proposition, even with a low interest rate. People may refinance and reduce their expenses, but low rates don't appear to be creating new home owners and driving new construction. Credit card rates
, on the other hand, aren't anywhere near zero. We aren't even close to a lower bound there. Low interest rates at the Fed and T-Bill level may not be doing anything to stimulate consumer demand.
I'm too lazy and unskilled to figure out the interest loans a typical business might face, but there's ample evidence that even with low interest rates, businesses don't see many investment opportunities. Businesses sitting on record piles of cash
don't need loans. They have money to spend. They must not see anything worth spending it on.
The advantage of fiscal over monetary policy in times like this is that fiscal policy acts directly, without having to go through intermediaries that have to be profitable. Unlike a business, the government can spend money without worrying about whether the investment will be profitable. When demand is slack, it can even do so without worrying about driving out private activity. Unlike a bank, the government can give money to consumers without worrying about whether they can pay it back, and it can do a much better job of making sure that the funds it injects go to those who will spend it.