Archive for the ‘Economy and Business’ Category

‘Debt that can’t be paid, won’t be’

November 3, 2015

The world’s peoples and governments, including us Americans, collectively owe more money than ever can be repaid.  How we got to this point and what it means are the topics of a book I finished reading last week, KILLING THE HOST: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy by Michael Hudson.

Classical economists distinguished between earned and unearned income, between hard-working laborers and merchants and what they called “rentiers,” people who “got rich in their sleep” by collecting income from land or financial assets.

They condemned what they called “rent-seeking,” which was the attempt to set up as toll-keeper for some part of the economy.

HudsonKillingtheHost41Jz7lQkwrLA great deal of 18th and 19th century economic thought was devoted to how to shift income away from landlords, monopolists and holders of financial assets, and into the hands of those whose efforts created real wealth.

In his book, economist Michael Hudson told how this distinction came to be forgotten in the 20th century, and what followed.

Operations of finance, insurance and real estate sector of the economy came to be regarded as equivalent to the production of actual goods and services, and the bidding up of prices of financial assets came to be regarded as equivalent to increase in real wealth.

All income came to be regarded as “earned” income.  The result is that more and more of the economy consists of the transfer of wealth from the real economy to the financial sector, but our economic blinkers keep us from seeing it.

There are many ways to increase financial wealth without increasing real wealth.  Corporations that use their profits to buy back stock increase the stock price and enrich shareholders, for example.  But unlike investment in machinery, research and development or new products, stock buybacks do not make the corporation itself more valuable or more viable.  Rather they drain the institution of needed resources.

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Five candidates’ economic policies reviewed

October 28, 2015

The Street, an on-line business news site, has published a series of reports on the economic policies of some of the candidates and their possible impact on stock prices and business profits.

I’m more interested in the possible impact on wages, jobs and overall prosperity, but these articles contain good information and fair comment.   The various writers aren’t all that impressed with any of the candidates.

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If Jeb Bush Becomes President, Here’s What Would Happen to the U.S. Economy by Tobias Burns for The Street.

If Ted Cruz Were President, Here’s What Would Happen to the U.S. Economy by Ross Kenneth Urken for The Street.

If Ex-HP Chief Carly Fiorina Was President, Here’s What Would Happen to the U.S. Economy by Carleton English for The Street.

If Socialist Candidate Bernie Sanders Was President, Here’s What Would Happen to the U.S. Economy by Emily Stewart for The Street.

If Donald Trump Was President, Here’s What Would Happen to the U.S. Economy by Emily Stewart for The Street.

The passing scene – links & comments 10/21/2015

October 21, 2015

The Secret to Winning the Nobel Peace Prize: Keep the U.S. military out by Rebecca Gordon for TomDispatch.

Tunisia was the one country where the Arab Spring movement succeeded.  Four Tunisian organizations devoted to human rights deservedly won the latest Nobel Peace Prize.

Tunisia was the one country in which the U.S. government did not interfere, either militarily or politically, and it is the one country where the Arab Spring movement resulted in a stable, democratic government.

Rebecca Gordon, after reviewing U.S. policy in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, concludes that this is not a coincidence.  There’s a lesson to be learned here.

Obama Just Signed a Blank Check for Endless War in Afghanistan by John Nichols for The Nation.

Rep. Barbara Lee

Rep. Barbara Lee

Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, says it’s time to repeal the open-ended 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and have Congress decide whether to continue military intervention in Afghanistan and other countries.

How Credit Scores Treat People Like Numbers by Frank Pasquale for The Atlantic.

I commented on how Chinese credit card companies and maybe the Chinese government are linking all kinds of human behaviors to credit scores, and how this can be a subtle means of suppressing nonconformity.  Well, it seems the same thing is going on in the United States—maybe not with that conscious intent, but with the same result.

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Why U.S. business kowtows to China

October 21, 2015

In the USA, government serves the needs of business.  In China, business serves the strategic aims of government.

No foreign corporation is allowed to operate in China without conceding something of long-term benefit to China.  That can be manufacturing operations in China, transfer of technological knowledge or a Chinese stake in the company’s ownership.  It goes without saying that the CEOs do not criticize Chinese foreign policy.

Cartoon by Xu Jun for EEO

Cartoon by Xu Jun for Economic Observer

Barry C. Lynn, writing in the November issue of Harper’s, said that some American corporate executives have even submitted to Communist-style self-criticism sessions, in which they volunteer confessions of misdeeds without being accused.

As China becomes more powerful, and the United States becomes more dependent on the Chinese for finance and for critical manufactured items, the leverage of Beijing over the United States becomes greater.  Lynn explained the reasons:

First is the fact that so many U.S. companies now depend on China for the products they sell.  For Walmart, it’s barbecue grills and shoes.  For Apple, it’s assembly work.  For Pfizer, it’s chemicals.

And while foreign companies have talked a lot about reducing their reliance on China, they nevertheless keep upping the ante, year after year.  Just last April, General Motors announced plans to pour another $16 billion into China.   In September, Dell pledged a whopping $125 billion over the next five years, with an ominous promise to “closely integrate Dell China strategies with [Chinese] national policies.”

A second reason corporations are so willing to accede to Chinese diktats is the allure of Chinese markets.  For General Motors, China already accounts for roughly a third of the cars it sells.  For Qualcomm, China accounts for roughly half its business.  For Rio Tinto, China accounts for considerably more than half its output of iron ore.

Chinese sales of Apple’s iPhones topped U.S. sales in 2015 — and when global markets were tanking in late August, Tim Cook helped arrest a rout in the company’s stock by publicly assuring investors that the Cupertino giant had “continued to experience strong growth for our business in China through July and August.”

Source: Harper’s Magazine.

Chinese investors own the AMC Theater chain of movie theaters in the United States, and also are major investors in American-made movies.  China also is the world’s largest market for Hollywood movies.

The result: Chinese are never the foreign villains in American movies—Russians, Arabs, Colombians, North Koreans, anybody but Chinese.

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Why is the TPP still a secret?

October 19, 2015

Tom the Dancing BugWhy is the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement still a secret, even though the negotiations are complete?

Why do we the people still depend on WikiLeaks for information on what’s in the agreement?

If opponents of TPP have the wrong idea about what’s in the agreement, why don’t President Obama and the heads of the other 11 governments that negotiated the TPP reveal what’s in it?

The logical answer is that they want to give the public as brief a window of opportunity as possible to examine and discuss the agreement in order to ram it through without adequate public discussion.

President Obama has said that the TPP enables the United States to write the rules of international trade rather than some other country such as China.  What it does is allow international corporations based in the United sttes to write the rules, which is something else.

The American people do not benefit from an agreement that enables American corporations to invest in setting up manufacturing operations in foreign countries, and then importing the products back into the USA.

The Chinese people benefit from being left out of the agreement, because that leaves their government free to pursue the Chinese national interest.

LINK

The Predators Behind the TPP by Karel van Wolferen for The Unz Review.   A good analysis by a distinguished Dutch scholar and journalist.

On the TPP: “We Are Writing the Rules,” says Obama.  Who’s “We?” by Jim Hightower for Buzzflash.

Federal Reserve ponders negative interest rates.

October 12, 2015

The Federal Reserve Board is reportedly thinking about negative interest rates as a means of stimulating the economy.

“Some of the experiences [in Europe] suggest maybe can we use negative interest rates and the costs aren’t as great as you anticipate,” said William Dudley, the president of the New York Fed, in an interview on CNBC on Friday.

Source: MarketWatch

negative-interest-rates1Negative interest rates are just what they sound like.   Depositors would pay banks to keep their money rather than being paid interest.  This is crazy.  Why would the Federal Reserve Board members even consider such a thing?

The idea is that if our economic problem is too much saving and too little spending, you can stimulate spending by penalizing saving.

The idea is that if low interest rates stimulate spending and investment, which produce economic growth, then negative interest rates would be an even better stimulus.

The negative interest rates would apply to funds that individual banks, such as M&T Bank here in upstate New York, deposit with a central bank, such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The negative rate wouldn’t necessarily apply to individual depositors, although it might.  Central banks in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden have imposed negative interest rates, and individual banks have charged depositors for holding their money.

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China overtakes US as world’s biggest economy

October 9, 2015

panda eagleThe World Bank has noted that China has quietly overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy.

Washington is responding to this in exactly the wrong way—by trying to checkmate China’s power rather than rebuilding the sources of American power.

China already led the United States in a number of important respects.  According to the CIA World Factbook, it exceeds the United States in industrial output, in agricultural output and in electricity production.

While China had a $260 billion trade surplus in 2013, the USA has a $698 billion trade deficit.

It is true that while the Chinese nation is rich, the Chinese people are still poor compared to Americans—not just in the amount of stuff they own, but in terms of infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy and access to public water and sewerage systems.

Inequality and concentration of wealth are just as great in China as they are in the United States.  China is the world’s largest polluter overall, although the USA is the largest on a per-capita basis.  Interestingly China has a lower birth rate and population growth rate than the USA.

But life has been getting better on average for the average Chinese person, while the earning power of the average American has been slipping behind.

The United States has the world’s largest and most expensive military, but the Chinese may be a match for the USA in their own backyard—the South China Sea.

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank and former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in a recent article that the USA still has great residual strength, but American leaders are letting it slip away by concentrating on military dominance and corporate profits at the expense of everything else.

In a full-fledged Cold War between the USA and China, China is in an economic position to do the USA great damage.  China could stop buying U.S. Treasury bonds, for example.

It’s not in the interest of China to wage economic war against the United States.  Both sides would suffer.  American leaders should not push China into a corner and put its leaders in a position in which they think they have no choice.   Instead American leaders should concentrate in reducing US economic vulnerability.

China does have big problems—inequality, pollution, corruption, unrest among workers and among minorities in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere.

Maybe these problems will be fatal, although I doubt it.  But these are not issues the United States can affect one way or the other, or should try to affect.

And if China should start to collapse, history has many examples of declining empires that try to restore internal unity by going to war.  This is not something we Americans should hope for.  Our problems originate at home, not in China.

LINKS

China Has Overtaken the United States as the World’s Largest Economy by Joseph Stiglitz for Vanity Fair.

China vs. United States from the CIA World Factbook.

G-Zero: US-China Relations in the Age of Xi by Peter Lee for China Matters.

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What’s new (at least to me) about the TPP

October 8, 2015
tpp-trade-graphic

Click to enlarge.

The Obama administration has moved very shrewdly to deflect some of the main criticisms of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.

  1.  Fast Track is not as fast as I previously thought It is true that once the TPP is submitted to Congress, there will be only 90 days to debate and decide.  But there will be a longer preliminary phase in which to study and discuss the proposed agreement.  I don’t know whether this was true all along and I (along with many others) didn’t realize it, or whether this is something new.  But in any case, the TPP is not necessarily going to be rushed through Congress as quickly as I had previously thought.
  2.   Evidently there will be amendments to address some of the main criticismsFor example, tobacco companies will not be able to use the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism to protest restrictions on cigarette advertising.

But here is the Cato Institute’s timetable for making the agreement public.

Even with the deal “concluded,” the president cannot sign the agreement until 90 days after he officially announces his intention to do so. During that period, there will be intensive consultations between the administration and Congress over the details; the legal text of the agreement will be made available to the public on the internet; the USTR advisory committees will submit their assessments of the deal to Congress; and there will be ample opportunity for informed, robust domestic debate about the deal’s pros and cons.

After the 90-day consultation period, the president can return to the TPP partners with input from Congress, which may or may not warrant modifications to the deal to improve its chances of ratification.

Once the deal is signed, the administration then has a maximum of 60 days to prepare a list of all U.S. laws that will need to be changed on account of TPP; the U.S. International Trade Commission will have a maximum of 105 days to do an analysis of the likely impact of the TPP on the U.S. economy; the congressional trade committees will perform mock markups of the implementing legislation; and, then, the final TPP implementing legislation will be introduced in both chambers.

After the legislation is introduced, the House will have 60 days and the Senate will have 30 days to hold votes. These requirements stem from the Trade Promotion Authority legislation enacted over the summer. If the TPP is going to be ratified by this Congress under this president, the timelines suggest that there isn’t much room for delay.

Source: Cato @ Liberty

Without Fast Track, there would be no deadline at all for voting the TPP up or down, there would be no restriction on amendments, and 60 votes instead of a 51-vote majority would be required for the TPP to clear the Senate.

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The passing scene – October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015

Why Free Markets Make Fools of Us by Cass R. Sunstein for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

The TPP has a provision that many will love to hate: ISDS.  What is it, and why does it matter? by Todd Tucker for the Washington Post.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

Hillary Clinton says she does not support Trans Pacific Partnership by the PBS Newshour.

Q: Is the Obama Administration Complicit With Slavery? A: Yes by Eric Loomis for Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Slavery in Malaysia is overlooked for the sake of the TPP.

Houston is a lot more tolerant of immigrants than Copenhagen is on Science Codex.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Science Saves: The Young Iraqis Promoting Evolutionary Theory and Rational Thought to Save Iraq by Marwan Jabbar for Niqash: briefings from inside and across Iraq.  (Hat tip to Informed Comment)

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals by Tim Flannery for The New York Review of Books.  (Hat tip to Jack)

Is the chilli pepper friend or foe? by William Kremer for BBC World Service.  (Hat tip to Jack)

My economic philosophy in a nutshell

October 6, 2015

When, lo, these many years ago, I studied economics in college, I learned that capital was the most important factor in a prosperous economy.

I still think this is true.  But that doesn’t mean that owners of financial assets are the most valuable members of society.

Standard economics teaches that three  are factors of production—land, labor and capital.  “Land” means all natural resources—everything of value not created by human beings.  “Labor” means all human effort, physical or mental.

 “Capital” is the most important of the three.  It means everything that increases the productivity of land and labor—railroads, machine tools, computers.  It is the force multiplier for land and labor.  It is what makes economic growth possible.

The problem is that “capital” also means also the financial resources available (but not necessarily used) to create these tangible resources.

Landlords who receive rents contribute nothing to the wealth of nations.  Laborers who earn wages contribute a fixed amount.  Capitalists who make profits have—so I was taught—an incentive to direct their capital in a way that created the most value, and thus increase the total wealth of society.

Late in life I have come to read Karl Marx’s rebuttal.  Physical and intellectual capital is not created by capitalists, he noted.  Every railroad, every machine tool, every computer was created not by money, but by the mental and physical effort of human beings.

The increase in human wealth that physical capital generates does not go to those who created it.  It goes to those who own it.

Marx denied that the owners of capital are job creators.  He asserted that workers are capital creators.

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The passing scene – October 4, 2015

October 4, 2015

Roger Millikin: The Man Who Launched the GOP’s Civil War by Jonathan M. Katz for Politico (hat tip to naked capitalism)

Roger Millikin, a right-wing textile magnate, was a driving force in transforming the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, and the Republican Party from the party of Lincoln into the party of Strom Thurmond, Jessie Helms and Trent Lott.

If not for him, or someone like him, Rick Perry might still be a Democrat and Elizabeth Warren might still be a Republican.

The Invisible Poverty of ‘Poor White Trash’ by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

I never use expressions such as “redneck” or “white trash.”  The word “redneck” originally to poor white farmers who worked in the hot sun in long-sleeved shirts.  It was a term used by educated people to express their contempt for manual labor and lack of schooling.  The term implies that poor white people are more racist than affluent white people, which in my experience has not been the case.

One Day After Warning Russia of Civilian Casualties, the U.S. Bombs a Hospital in Afghanistan by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack).

Bubbles Always Burst: the Education of an Economist by Michael Hudson, author of Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy.

Debacle Inc.: How Henry Kissinger Helped Create Our “Proliferated” World by Greg Grandin, author of Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman.

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Donald Trump in the 1980s

September 28, 2015

Hat tip to KeldBach’s Journal.

This informative 1991 documentary film about Donald Trump traces the history of his business up until the bankruptcy of Trump Taj Mahal, the first of four Trump businesses to seek protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Donald is the son of Fred Trump, a successful developer in Brooklyn.  Part of his success, as the documentary shows, is due to the Trump family money.  Part is due to Donald Trump’s use of his father’s name to obtain political influence and to get use of other people’s money.

The documentary shows Trump was a talented and successful deal-maker.  It shows he was an even more successful salesman and promoter, and how that trumped (so to speak) his failure to provide good service to his tenants or to achieve sustainable financial results.

The makers of the documentary write Trump off as a failure, and yet, as we now know, he bounced back and survived even more setbacks, by using his celebrity to promote the Trump brand.

Is this what we Americans want in a President of the United States?  It would not be a change for the better, but a doubling down on everything that has been wrong in Washington for the past 10 or 15 years—how repeated failures are hidden behind a smokescreen of denital and bluff.

Romney, Fiorina, Trump: who did the most harm?

September 22, 2015

Last week a friend of mine wondered out loud who ruined more lives—Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina or Mitt Romney?

After doing a little Internet research, I would say—probably Mitt Romney, possibly Carly Fiorina, but not Donald Trump.

romney-record-620x1024Mitt Romney was CEO of an investment firm called Bain Capital.  It started out in 1984 as a venture capital firm; its most successful investment was the Staples chain of office supply stores.

But from 1989 to 1999, it adopted a new strategy—borrowing money to buy existing companies, saddling the companies themselves with the debt while meanwhile giving Bain big consulting fees.

Some of the companies collapsed under the burden of debt, some survived.  Having to service a big debt obligation probably tipped many into failure.  Nobody would argue that it helped.  But Romney and the other Bain partners did well whether the companies succeeded or not.

Carly Fiorina became head of Hewlett-Packard in 1999.   Her most notable accomplishment was aquisition of Compaq Computer, which by most accounts didn’t pay off.  The H-P board of directors fired her in 2005.

The Boston Globe estimated that 30,000 employees were laid off during her tenure.  On the other hand total jobs at H-P when she left were roughly equal to the combined H-P and Compaq employment in 2009.

Donald Trump took his companies into bankruptcy—that is, reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code—four times.  These were Trump Taj Mahal in 1991, Trump Plaza Hotel in 1992, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts in 2004 and Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2009.

In each of these reorganizations, Trump took a loss and gave up control.   The businesses continued, and evidently there weren’t any big layoffs at the time.   Trump Taj Mahal filed again for bankruptcy last year, but Trump no longer controls it.

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An ‘economic hit man’ tells his story

September 22, 2015

I read CONFESSIONS OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN by John Perkins on the recommendation of a fellow blogger known as Holden.

Perkins wrote this memoir in 2004 about his work as an international economics consultant in the 1970s.  He said his job was to intentionally make bogus projections of economic growth for Third World countries such as Indonesia, Ecuador and Iran.

The idea was to encourage developing countries to borrow heavily to finance economic development projects using U.S.-based contractors.  The countries’ leaders were promised that these projects would bring about rapid economic growth, and make their countries prosperous and modern.

14273_johnperkins_nWhen the countries became unable to finance their debt, this created opportunities for American and international companies to buy up their national assets at bargain prices.

And even when the economic development plans worked, they only benefited tiny elites while leaving the majority of the people just as badly off or even worse off.

To stay in power, the elite accepted U.S. military aid in return for supporting U.S. foreign policy or hosting U.S. military bases or both.

Perkins said he was in on U.S. negotiations with Saudi Arabia following the 1973 oil embargo, which led to the U.S.-Saudi alliance which endures to this day.

The Saudi royal family agreed to manipulate oil production in order to protect the U.S. economy from big fluctuations in world oil prices.  The Saudis further agreed to invest their revenues in U.S. Treasury bonds

In return, the U.S. Treasury Department invested the income from those bonds in infrastructure projects, all carried out by U.S. contractors, to give Saudi Arabia the appearance of being a modern country.  The U.S. Defense Department provided a military shield for this weak, thinly-populated country against enemies such as Iraq and Iran.

The problem, as I see it, is that it has made the United States hostage to Saudi ambitions to dominate the Middle East.

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Sabbath observance as a class privilege

September 6, 2015

I attend church almost every Sunday morning.  Not everybody is able to do this.

Nowadays many people are forced to work on Sunday mornings or work on flextime schedules so that they don’t know whether their Sunday mornings will be free or not.   And even more are unable to have an old-fashioned Sunday dinner with family or spend Sundays visiting relatives and family friends.

Closed-on-SundayI hadn’t given much thought to this until it was pointed out this Sunday morning by Peter House, who serves as summer minister at First Universalist Church of Rochester NY.

Peter grew up in one of those families of whom members say later, “We were poor, but we were happy, because we didn’t know we were poor.”  His mother was a poor widow who supported the family by working in a retail store.

When he was a boy, Sundays were spent going to church, visiting relatives, paying respects at the cemetery to deceased loved ones, and eating family meals.

This started to erode when he was in his early teens, with the repeal of the Sunday blue laws and the coming of big box retail stores.   Churches adapted by holding multiple Sunday services and even Saturday evening services, but it was no long possible for his family to count on all being together at the same time on Sunday.  His mother was sometimes free on Sunday mornings, but no longer could be sure of knowing when.

Traditional holidays are being broken down as well.  Black Friday means that store employees have to cut short their Thanksgiving in order to be read to open at 5 a.m. or even midnight.  Now Walmart opens all day on Thanksgiving.

Peter’s weekday job is teacher of special needs children.  As part of an effort to teach social skills to children, he once talked to six of his students about Thanksgiving.  Five of the six had mothers who had to work on Thanksgiving Day.   Some of them didn’t know what a traditional Thanksgiving meal consisted of.  One thought Thanksgiving dinner was hot dogs cut up into macaroni and cheese.

The teachers’ aides at his school, many of them women of color, have to moonlight at other jobs, often big-box retailers.   Many miss not being able to cook holiday meals for their families.  But the reality of employment in 21st century America is that they can’t.

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Why Americans need labor unions

September 5, 2015

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During the past 40 years, the productivity of American workers has continued to increase but their wages (adjusted for inflation) have barely increased at all.

Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, in his new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, says this is because corporate America has decided that it doesn’t want highly-skilled, well-paid workers; it wants low-paid, replaceable workers.

1.UnionsCPS_fig11

The middle class is the middle 60% of income earners, between the top and bottom 20%

Many evils flow from this.  Working people and the middle class have take on more debt in order to buy homes, pay for higher education or maintain their material standard of living.

Bankers and financiers find it more profitable to invest in debt than in the production of goods and services.

This results in the financialization and hollowing-out of the U.S. economy.

Geoghegan thinks the one thing that can save us is a labor union movement strong enough to win wage increases sufficient to keep up with the increase in the production of wealth.

This will give working people and the middle class enough buying power to generate a real economic recovery.

It will enable them to pay down debt.  Shrinking the debt industry will free up money to be invested in producing real goods and services.

Labor union contracts will make it harder to lay people off at will.  This will give employers an incentive to invest in training to make their workers more productive, which union apprenticeship programs can help with.

With more Americans earning good incomes, tax revenues will increase and governmental budgets will be more in balance.  With fewer jobs being shipped overseas, the U.S. trade deficit may shrink.

A politically powerful union movement will bring American politics into balance.  The USA will have both a left wing and a right wing rather than, as at present, only a right wing.

He advocates reforms to strengthen labor unions, including:
1.  Making union membership a civil right.
2.  Allowing members-only unions without NLRB elections.

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The U.S. economy on life support

September 4, 2015

credit-compensation3-15a

 

The Federal Reserve Board will soon decide once again whether to continue to hold down interest rates or to allow them to rise.

The board is in more or less the same position as a physician trying to decide whether to remove life support a patient who is in intensive care.

All the indicators are that the patient is too weak to be removed from life support.  Yet the patient can’t stay on life support forever.

I used to criticize the Federal Reserve Board on the grounds that it preferred tight money and high unemployment to the possibility of inflation.  That’s yesterday’s news.  Now the Fed’s concern is how to get the country out of its long-term recession.

The historic Keynesian remedy for recession is to increase the money supply and hold down interest rates.  The idea is that putting money in circulation and making credit readily available will encourage consumers to buy things and businesses to invest.

But this time around, it didn’t happen.  Banks and financial institutions invested in debt rather than in production of tangible goods and services.   Savers invested in stocks and bonds because they couldn’t get any interest on their bank accounts, but this didn’t stimulate the real economy either, or at least not very much.

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The stock market in 100-year perspective

August 26, 2015

 DowJones1914-2014-Constant-e1440525772683Source: American Enterprise Institute

The Dow Jones Industrial Average of 30 industrial stocks was at 54.6 at the end of 1914.  By the end of 2014, it was at 17,823.

But adjusted for changes in the Consumer Price Index, the gain is much more moderate—about 2.7 percent a year. The average dividend yield on DJIA stocks was about 4.1 percent.  So the total average annual gain was 6.8 percent.

What the chart shows is that there have been long periods when stock prices declined or were static.  You can’t count on stocks always going up.  The 1920s and 1990s booms were not necessarily typical.

I’m not smart enough or stupid enough to predict how the stock market will go, but you’d have to be very optimistic to think the boom will continue.

I don’t think the recent rise in stock prices reflects the real economy.  I think it is a result of the Federal Reserve Board holding down bank interest rates, so that savers are driven to buy stocks in order to get a yield on their money.

Many CEOs are buying back the companies’ stocks, thereby driving up the price, instead of investing in expanding their businesses, which would benefit the nation as a whole.

This is another example of Stein’s Law:  If something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.   The recent stock price boom could not go on forever.

LINKS

The stock market in 100-year perspective by Alex J. Pollock for the American Enterprise Institute.

Wall Street Panic by Mike Whitney for Counterpunch.

Quick Thoughts on the Stock Market and the Economy by Dean Baker for Beat the Press.

Smoke and Mirrors of Corporate Buybacks Behind the Market Crash, an interview of Michael Hudson for the Real News Network.

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Update 8/27/2015.  I made some changes in wording that didn’t change the meaning of this post.

There never was an “economic stimulus”

August 24, 2015
blog_govt_spending_recession

Source: the Wall Street Journal

All the recessions since World War Two were followed by an “economic stimulus”.   The current one is the exception.  As the chart above indicates, government spending—combined local, state and federal government spending—has actually declined.

The idea behind “economic stimulus” was that increased government spending would put people to work and put money in circulation so that the recession would not have a domino effect and develop into a full-fledged recession.

Of course some of this was not intentional.  Spending for unemployment insurance and other safety net programs automatically increases in hard times.

For the idea to work, there has to be deficit spending.  There is no economic stimulus if governments take as much money out of the economy through taxes as they inject through spending.   Keynesian economists think this should be offset by government budget surpluses when the economy is booming and needs to be cooled off.

You could argue about whether this is justified and how much effect it really works.  I personally think that the severity of the Great Recession is due to the long-range decline of American wages in inflation-adjusted terms.

But it is interesting to note that the current recession is the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s and that it is the only one followed by an actual decrease in government spending.

LINK

Chart of the Day: Here’s Why the Recovery Has Been So Weak by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

The passing scene – August 19, 2015

August 19, 2015

On the elementary structure of domination: The Bully’s Pulpit by David Graeber for The Baffler.

Schoolyard bullies typically believe they have a right and duty to punish and humiliate those who manifest vulnerability, fear or deviance, and they retroactively justify their actions by the inappropriate ways in which their victims resist, Graeber wrote; this reflects the structure of domination in the larger society.

Algorithms can be a digital star chamber by Frank Pasquale for Aeon.

An algorithm fed into a computer can determine whether you get a job, get credit or get insurance, or what kind.  Probably you don’t know about it.  Probably you can’t appeal the result because arbitrary assumptions processed through a computer are considered “objective.”

Climate Change Threatens Economic Development, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim Says by Julia Glum for International Business Times.   (Hat tip to Hal Bauer)

We’ll see whether he puts the World Bank’s money where his mouth is.

(more…)

The passing scene – August 8, 2015

August 8, 2015

Republican Assault on Trump May Only Make Him Stronger by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Trump’s Triumph: Billionaire Bloward Exposes Fake Political System by Mike Whitney for Counterpunch.

How Pathetic: Why Donald Trump May Be the Best Thing Going by Andrew Levine for Counterpunch.

The Republican Candidates Agree that the System Is Rigged for the Rich by William K. Black for New Economic Perspectives.

720x405-GettyImages-483208910I still can’t take Donald Trump seriously as a Presidential candidate, but he has said things that need to be said, especially about how he and other billionaires have the power to buy politicians.

Other Republican candidates also point out that the political system is rigged in favor of Wall Street and the large corporations.

Their answer appears to be lower taxes, less regulation and a minimal role for government, on the theory that the less government does, the less it matters whether corporations and wealthy individuals can manipulate government.

My problem with this is that some large corporations have grown so large and powerful that they are the next thing to governments themselves.

Hillary’s Libyan Torturers by Daniel McAdams for The Ron Paul Institute.

hillary-tortureThe achievement of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in foreign affairs was to find a way to find a way to continue the policies of George W. Bush without large numbers of American casualties.

The attack on Libya is an example of this.  The U.S. government supported an attack on a country that did not threaten the United States, based on lies, and reduced it to bloody chaos in which terrorists such as ISIS flourish.

The problem with Bernie Sanders by Joseph Cannon of Cannonfire.

Bernie Sanders is like many democratic socialists of the 1950s and 1960s—a defender of the interests of working people, a defender of civil rights, but also a cold warrior.

He thinks the United States should support Saudi Arabia and Turkey against ISIS, when these two governments are interested only in fighting the enemies of ISIS—Syria for Saudi Arabia and the Kurds for Turkey.   Likewise he favors confrontation of Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, which puts the United States at risk of nuclear war.

(more…)

Pro-TPP companies, groups bankroll Clinton

August 7, 2015

CLQEBW4XAAAMhhvSource: LittleSis.

Hillary Clinton in her book, Hard Choices, endorsed the Trans Pacific Partnership.  If she makes any statements appearing to back off from that position, I’d read them like a lawyer looking for loopholes.

She’s been paid more than $2.5 million—actually, more than $2.7 million—in speaking fees by companies and organizations that lobby in favor of the TPP.

Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, two other Democratic candidates for President, are opposed to the TPP, as are Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump.

Republicans Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Perry support the TPP.

I think the TPP is a terrible idea because, based on information now available, it appears to lock in a corporate wish-list as international law.  International corporations, but no other entities, would have the right to appeal to a special tribunal against laws they deem unfair, and the tribunal would have authority to fine governments for allegedly unfair laws.

At the very least Congress should have time to discuss and debate it fully rather than having it rushed through on fast track.

LINKS

Groups lobbying on trade paid Hillary Clinton $2.5 million in speaking fees by Julianna Goldman for CBS News.

TPP Agreement: Where Do 2016 Presidential Candidates Stand on the Trans Pacific Partnership? by Howard Koplowitz for International Business Times.

Donald Trump slams Pacific free trade deal by CNN Money.  Trump appears to be right for wrong reasons.  Like some TPP supporters, he talks as if the TPP is mainly about free trade.

(more…)

Greece and the economic hit men

August 3, 2015

Like many people, I once naively believed that banks made a profit by lending money to people who would pay them back.  I’m sure that is still true of the many honest bankers still left in the world.

But it can be more profitable for banks to lend money to people who can’t pay them back.  The lender collects higher interest rates.  Sometimes the loans are securitized and sold to suckers.   Foreclosures are profitable if the value of the underlying asset is greater than the loan.

And last, but not least, if the lender is large enough and politically powerful enough, a government will bail him out.

John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (which I haven’t read), gave an interview to a Greek radio station explaining how this works.

Essentially, my job was to identify countries that had resources that our corporations want, and that could be things like oil – or it could be markets – it could be transportation systems.  There are so many different things.

2014_911_perkins_st

John Perkins

Once we identified these countries, we arranged huge loans to them, but the money would never actually go to the countries; instead it would go to our own corporations to build infrastructure projects in those countries, things like power plants and highways that benefited a few wealthy people as well as our own corporations, but not the majority of people who couldn’t afford to buy into these things, and yet they were left holding a huge debt, very much like what Greece has today, a phenomenal debt.

And once [they were] bound by that debt, we would go back, usually in the form of the IMF – and in the case of Greece today, it’s the IMF and the EU [European Union] – and make tremendous demands on the country: increase taxes, cut back on spending, sell public sector utilities to private companies, things like power companies and water systems, transportation systems, privatize those, and basically become a slave to us, to the corporations, to the IMF, in your case to the EU, and basically, organizations like the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, are tools of the big corporations, what I call the “corporatocracy.”

via TruthOut.

The so-called “bailout” of Greece is not a bailout of the Greek people and does not reduce the Greek debt burden.  It is a bailout of banks by European governments and the International Monetary Fund.

I’d guess that’s the reason the Russian government turned down a Greek plea for help.   The Russians would get no benefit from providing funds to Greece that would flow through to European governments that support the Ukrainian government’s fight against pro-Russian separatists.  Far better, from the Russian standpoint, to wait until Greece defaults and disconnects from Europe, and then step in.

Ukraine itself will soon be in the same situation.  It has greater debts than it ever can repay, and rich assets, especially in agricultural land, that speculators would like to acquire.

∞∞∞

An Economic Hit Man Speaks Out: John Perkins on How Greece Has Fallen Victim to “Economic Hit Men”, an interview by Michael Nevradakis for Dialogos Radio in Greece.

Bailout Money Goes to Greece, Only to Flow Out Again by Jack Ewing and Liz Alderman for the New York Times.

Who Really Benefits From Bailouts? by Barry Ritholtz for BoombergView.

Jack Bogle on why the financial sector is too big

August 3, 2015

Jack Bogle is the founder of the Vanguard group of mutual funds and a pioneer of the concept of investing in no-load index funds with low expense ratios rather than trying to outguess the market.

Vanguard has the largest share of fund assets in the industry, and two-thirds of that is in index funds.  I myself have put my retirement savings in Vanguard and T. Rowe  Price funds.

This is from an interview of Jack Bogle in the August issue of Money magazine.

Q: You’re concerned that the financial sector is too big. Why?

Jack Bogle

Jack Bogle

A: The job of finance is to provide capital to companies. We do it to the tune of $250 billion a year in IPOs and secondary offerings. What else do we do? We encourage investors to trade about $32 trillion a year. So the way I calculate it, 99% of what we do in this industry is people trading with one another, with a gain only to the middleman. It’s a waste of resources.

via Money.com.

Mitch Tuchman of MarketWatch pointed out that $32 trillion is nearly double the size of the U.S. economy.  Merely moving this from one pocket to another during the course of a year is at best useless and at worst destabilizing to the U.S. economy.  Yet a lot of people get rich collecting fees just for moving the money around.

There should be a transaction tax of some fraction of 1 percent.  This wouldn’t affect serious long-term investors, but it would slow down speculators.

LINKS

Jack Bogle Explains How the Index Fund Won With Investors, an interview by Pat Regnier for Money magazine.

Why 99% of trading is pointless by Mitch Tuchman of MarketWatch.

Failing to learn from the Great Depression

July 30, 2015

The Great Depression of the 1930s was made worse than it needed to be because European governments prioritized balanced budgets and stable currencies over putting people back to work and putting money into circulation.

As Matthew Yglesias noted—

In Germany, for example, the [ruling socialist] SPD took the view, roughly speaking, that capitalism was an inherently flawed system and the Depression just proved that.  But short of a revolution and a total transformation of the political universe, there was just nothing to be done to alleviate unemployment.

Similarly, in 1929 Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party swept into power in the United Kingdom and proceeded to … enact spending cuts necessary to keep the country on the gold standard.  As this led to left-wing defections, MacDonald eventually made up lost ground by forming a coalition with Conservatives that eventually ended up being mostly backed by conservative MPs.

Sweden was an exception where the local social democrats took bold steps to bolster employment. But mostly it was left to other parties with less worthy overall agendas — Hitler, for example — to step in and say that if the rules of the game led to prolonged spells of mass unemployment then the rules of the game had to be changed.

via Vox.com.

Brad  DeLong, an economist at UC Berkeley, said that he used to joke that governments would never again make the mistakes that prolonged the Great Depression, but instead would make new mistakes.  Now he admits he was wrong.  Governments are making the same old mistakes.

austerity-depressionEurope’s governments are held back by fear of fiscal imbalance and undermining the Euro standard, just as they once were held back for fear of undermining the gold standard.  But, as in the 1930s, there are nationalist parties waiting in the wings to do the things that the mainstream parties fear to do.

The European public may well turn to parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France or the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece.   As far as that goes, similar movements will arise in the United States if Democrats and Republicans fail to act.

LINKS

Depression’s Advocates by J. Bradford DeLong for Project Syndicate.

I don’t want to go back there by Matthew Yglesias for Vox.com.


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