My eyes popped open at 5:30 this morning, and I could not go back to sleep. So while checking my RSS feeds I found a few articles from Alternet that you should take a look at. I will just post the link and a small part of the article to tease you…
First this look at a British documentary that spanned decades, The Brutal Truth About How Childhood Determines Your Economic Destiny
“Give me the child until he is seven,” the old Jesuit teachers say, “and I will give you the man.”
Back in 1964, filmmaker Paul Almond set out to test that theory by documenting the lives of a group of seven-year-old British children. Some were born to the manor; others grew up in charity homes. There were tykes from both the countryside and the city. Almond wanted to know if the destiny of the children had already been scripted by the circumstances of their birth — particularly those of class. His film Seven Up! has grown into a series spanning over five decades. Every seven years, like the cycle in some mythological saga, Michael Apted, the assistant on the original project, has returned to these children as they have morphed before our eyes into awkward adolescents, tentative adults, and now, the paunchy survivors of late middle-age.
As bright-eyed children, participants like Jackie Bassett, the product of a working-class neighborhood, or Andrew Brackfield, who attends a posh prep school, are already miles apart in attitude and habits. Tellingly, the children speak very differently about what they see in their future. Those from the higher ranks already know which universities they’ll attend, while Paul Kligarman, who lives at the charity home, asks plaintively, “What’s a university?”
This article is written by Lynn Parramore, and although I have disagreed with her position before…she does an excellent job on laying out the resulting class structures that conservative policies and austerity bring about…you know, the death of upward mobility.
On to another interesting long reads, this time written by Jennifer Holladay: Why Are 8 Year-Olds Reading Stories That Glorify Rape?
Last spring, my 2nd-grade daughter came home with an extra assignment—a worksheet she hadn’t completed in class for a story called “The Selkie Girl.” She brought the book home, too, and it was one I’d never seen before, a Junior Great Books anthology (Series 3, Book 1), published by the nonprofit Great Books Foundation.
As we settled in, I asked my daughter to tell me about “The Selkie Girl.” Her rendition gave me pause, so I asked her to do her other homework first. She turned to a worksheet, and I cracked the book open.
“The Selkie Girl” is essentially about a magical seal-woman who is kidnapped and raped repeatedly during her long captivity. The man who holds her hostage proclaims early on that “I am in love” and “I want her to be my wife.” When he kidnapped her, “She was crying bitterly, but she followed him.” Later, the narrative tells us, “Because he was gentle and loving, she no longer wept. When their first child was born, he saw her smile.” When her means of escape is discovered, however, she explains quite bluntly to the children she bore: “For I was brought here against my will, 20 years past.”
It’s like the modern-day reality of Jaycee Dugard (who was kidnapped at age 11 in California and held captive with her two children for 18 years), told in folklore for the consumption of young children.
It is disturbing, but as you will read in the article, it goes back to conservative policies…this time the target is in education. I guess you can imagine where the discovery of this story “The Selkie Girl” will lead Holladay as she researches the publisher of the textbook, it is no surprise. Just read it.
On to another alternet post, this time a review of sorts of the latest crap written by Ben Shapiro. Conservatives Are Always Triumphant and Also an Oppressed Minority, According to Notably Stupid New Book
Ben Shapiro makes his living harrumphing over the sins of liberalism, and his new book doesn’t disappoint.
Being a doctrinaire conservative in this day and age requires you to do a lot of cognitive gymnastics. Luckily, the captain of the right’s gymnastic team is Ben Shapiro, who has been an exceptional contortionist since his YAF days, when he simultaneously boasted of his unfashionable virginity and scolded everyone else about their allegedly unconventional sex lives. Ben is married now, and presumably has engaged in heterosexual intercourse, but it hasn’t made him any happier or more relaxed, as he makes his living harrumphing over the sins of liberalism. Hey, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean someone should do it.
Though not himself large, Ben has wrangled, by virtue of being a nuance-impervious loudmouth, the position of editor-at-large at Breitbart.com. (You may recall that this position was once held by Andrew Breitbart himself, until his heart self-detonated rather than listen to him bellow for one more second.) This job entails being a sort of all-purpose complainer, a queen bee fat on the jelly of foundation grants, forever sending out drones to gather the sweet nectar of gripe. Just like that one guy on your Facebook who can’t relate to anything unless it has a Star Wars reference in it, Ben has cranked out book after book of impotent whining about how liberals are ruining everything with their education and their pornography and their crazy rock and roll and their hair. A 79-year-old man in the body of a failed attorney, his books (which I only hesitate to call unreadable because even I have better things to do than read them) attract praise from the kind of people who write books exactly like them — that is to say, endless litanies of alleged liberal treachery and evildoing.
And I will end with this post: Is The American Hemp Renaissance About to Begin?
Kentucky was America’s leading hemp producer in the early 19th century. Now, two hundreds year later, after a historic election for drug policy has led to a shift for marijuana policy reform in America, Kentucky lawmakers are taking steps to revive the crop. While advocates for hemplegalization say the plant could bring a wealth of green jobs to Kentucky, deep-rooted drug stigma and conflict with federal law have made t he legislation’s passing unlikely. Nonetheless, two state bills are in the works, while a federal proposal aims to clear the way for state legalization. Lawmakers suggest the bills could at least open up the conversation about hemp, and clear misconceptions about its use.
Because hemp is increasingly imported from Canada, growing and making it in the US could save the US money and create green jobs at home. Aside from soy, no other plant has shown the potential to create so many different products — from hemp soap to paper and oil. Moreover, hemp rarely requires pesticides, can be grown in the same fields over several consecutive years, and produces biodegradable plastics and biofuels. Lightweight and dense, hemp-limeis a building material that known to be an efficient insulator leaving behind a minimal carbon footprint.
Which, in light of the current Midwestern drought that is bringing about comparisons to the great Dust Bowl, this long read about a historic plant like hemp was actually hopeful. However, like most of the articles I’ve shared today…seeing the problem and actually fixing it are two different things. I don’t know, maybe the real issue is staring us right in the face? Conservative policies don’t work, and it is painfully obvious to me that until we move away from these right-wing ideals…none of the solutions to many of our problems will ever get put into action.
Damn…now that is depressing.
Catch y’all later in the comment section, for now my eyelids are getting heavy and maybe I can get a few more hours sleep in before the kids way up.
Yes, yes … the fiscal bunny slope has been somewhat solved and the press has moved on to discussing the next big self-inflicted fiscal crisis coming up in February. ( I guess we’re adopting the term “March Madness” just to make it all exciting and discussable.) We’re still in the land of economic surreality instead of theory. It worries me. The basic problem is that this country has forgotten its economic history, lessons and theory. Fiscal policy should not be based on political memes and lurching from one crisis to the next. Here’s some things to think on from economists.
Economist Nouriel Roubini points out that we’ve been let down by our political leaders who just don’t get that our basic problem is really one of development. We’ve had substantial growth in upper incomes and corporate profits, yet we’re going nowhere in all the quality of life and economy numbers. We have a tax policy that encourages folks like Romney to strip money out of functional businesses, shut them down, and move the proceeds to offshore bank accounts to avoid paying taxes that support basic features of a civilized country. How is this kind of wealth creation helping our economy? How is treating speculative gambling to tax favors instead encouraging actual business building creating a future upon which we can sustain our civilization? Why isn’t the press looking at the fiscal drag this cliff solution creates a well as the bigger issue of austerity facing us in March? Austerity has done the UK no favors and is crushing parts of the Eurozone. Why are the media and the political elite focusing on policies that look like Herbert Hoover’s revenge? Why feed the drone economy while starving granny?
President Barack Obama and his allies will argue that the deal concluded on Tuesday raises only $600bn of revenues over 10 years rather than their initial target of $1.4tn – and therefore there is further room for tax rises, at least for the wealthy. Republicans will argue that spending should now be radically cut, since this week’s deal did not address that side of the national balance sheet. (Even the 2011 debt ceiling deal reduced prospective spending by $1tn).
In the meantime, the likely fiscal adjustment in 2013 will be about 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product. (Spread between the expiry of the payroll tax cut, the increase in the tax rates of the rich, and some eventual cuts to spending.)
This translates into a 1.2 per cent of GDP drag on the economy during the year. If the economy was happily growing above trend – at say 3.5 per cent – that would not be such a big deal, as growth would still be above 2 per cent. In the past few quarters growth already averaged about 2 per cent. So the US could quite easily come perilously close to stall speed this year – or worse, if the eurozone crisis worsens.
The longer-term picture is bleaker still. The reality is that America is yet to wake up to the full extent of its fiscal nightmare. Even the typical Republican voter is not – being on average older and poorer than a Democrat voter – in favour of gutting the welfare state. Tea Party extremists are more noise than signal. That is why the plans of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ losing presidential ticket, postponed all the tough spending cuts on Social Security and Medicare by a decade.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans recognise that maintaining a basic welfare state, which is right and necessary in our age of globalisation, rapid technological change and demographic pressure, implies higher taxes for the middle class as well as for the rich. A deal that extends unsustainable tax cuts for 98 per cent of Americans is therefore a pyrrhic victory for Mr Obama.
Yes, they continue to eye cuts in social security under the guise of tackling the deficit. Economist Dean Baker reminds us that Social Security has nothing to do with the Federal Deficit. Yet, there’s Simpson and Bowles yacking up that granny starving canard again! Let’s chain link our grandparents in the name of a lie, please!! Baker is right. Budget hysteria is a growth industry driven by lies and has nothing to do with what’s really happening in our real economy.
While the promotion of budget hysteria is one of the largest industries in Washington, the most important and widely ignored fact about the budget situation is that we have large deficits today because the collapse of the housing bubble sank the economy. This is not a debatable point.
The budget deficit was just 1.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2007. Before the collapse of the housing bubble the deficit was projected to remain low for the next decade and the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio was actually falling. This would have been the case even if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to continue.
When the bubble burst and the economy plummeted, tax collections fell. We also spent more on unemployment insurance and other benefits for unemployed workers. And we had further tax cuts and stimulus spending to try to boost the economy. The automatic and deliberate steps taken to counter the downturn fully explain the large deficits we have seen the last five years.
Record low interest rates on government bonds demonstrate that the current deficits are not a real problem. But even if they were, it is difficult to see how cutting Social Security could to be part of the solution. Under the law Social Security is not supposed to be part of the budget. It is an entirely separate program financed on its own.
This is not just a rhetorical point. We can talk about Social Security facing a financing shortfall in the future precisely because it is solely financed by its own revenue stream.
What we really need is a recovery. That will not happen with all the fiscal policies being placed on the table right now. Let’s review one simple thing. As long as you have a good currency, federal debt instruments in demand, and a vast array of taxable assets in your country, there is no such thing as a ‘bankrupt’ government or excessive debt. But, don’t take my word for it. Let’s again, look at the economic studies and look at the demand for treasury bonds and bills. Markets see no problem with debt levels in most industrialized nations because they know that with development and growth there comes decreased deficits and pay down of debt.
The sovereign bond markets in America, Japan, Britain, and the euro area’s “core” do not seem to think so. These governments can borrow cheaply for decades at a time. While it is certainly possible that the markets are wrong, policymakers should probably pay more attention to investors and less to the fear-mongers, especially since economists do not know how much government debt is too much. In fact, there is good reason to think that many countries with their own currencies could become far more indebted without risking trouble. One reason is that many private investors do not own enough sovereign bonds.
It is important to remember that there is an absence of evidence that governments with their own currencies are too indebted. Those who argue otherwise point to the work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, the celebrated authors of This Time is Different. Their paper “Growth in a Time of Debt” claimed that sovereign debt creates a burden on the rest of the economy. (They summarise their points here.) But, as Robert Shiller and Paul Krugman have pointed out, Ms Reinhart and Mr Rogoff never explain how public indebtedness restrains growth. There may be other forces at work, especially since sovereign debt ratios are usually at their highest after wars and financial crises. In countries with their own currencies, private interest rates are now so low that many investors have been grasping for yield wherever they can find it, such as in the revived CLO market. When he evaluated the evidence, my colleague concluded that “debt matters, but the precise way that it matters isn’t as clear-cut as Reinhart-Rogoff seem to indicate”.
Why would private investors want to buy more sovereign debt? A previous post on the shortage of safe financial assets mentioned how pension plans in many countries need to buy more government bonds to avoid mismatches between their assets and liabilities …
Nearly all the red states in our country may be Greece and Portugal–with the exceptions of Texas and Florida–but the blue states are overwhelmingly Germany and they continually bail out those loser states. That’s why we are not the Eurozone. However, those red states sure are trying to blow up the very arrangement that keeps them in roads, schools, and police forces. Economist Clive Crook points out how these idiots have now created a situation where governing means we lurch between crisis because none of them appear to be able to accept the lessons learned from the civil war, the Great Depression, or about 60 year of economic and finance theory.
The latest fiscal deal does little to resolve those uncertainties. The spending-cut part has merely been delayed by two months. The tax increase for couples making more than $450,000, together with other changes and estimated savings in debt interest, shaves about $700 billion from the 10-year deficit. Savings of about $2 trillion will be needed to stabilize the ratio of public debt to national income. Bringing that ratio down to a safer level requires spending cuts and tax increases worth $4 trillion — the original “grand bargain” ambition.
Instead of dealing calmly with the problem, fiscal policy has settled into a mode of perpetual phony crisis. Phony doesn’t mean harmless, however. The risk of a real fiscal crisis gradually builds. Meanwhile, the cumulative effects of simulated crisis might be almost as bad. It’s the difference between an acute illness and a chronic wasting disease — one that’s beginning to look incurable.
Don’t tell me the economy just had a lucky escape. Whatever happens next, it has been paying for the fiscal standoff for months. It’s paying for what Congress might do with the next debt ceiling, and the one after that. The “significant uncertainty” that Geithner referred to has already held back the U.S. recovery. Another temporary fiscal patch isn’t a remedy. It’s just more of the same.
The economy needs a lasting fiscal compact that commands broad, bipartisan support. I can hear the groans. Not another call for compromise. Many Democrats and almost all Republicans find the idea disgusting. On Capitol Hill, it’s no longer enough for one side to win; the other has to be seen to lose. That attitude is the growing burden the economy has to carry.
Which brings me back to journalistic, political hacks that write columns like this one at Politico. (Glen Thrush and Reid J Epstein are the guilty wielders of the keyboards of ignorance here.) They just opine that Obama has a debt problem. Gee, guys, where did you get your doctorates in economics or finance? The place is aptly called Tiger Beat on the Potomac by Charles Pierce. They are all about being groupies to their DC stars. No Republican meme is too outrageously wrong for this e-dishrag.
The staggering national debt — up about 60 percent from the $10 trillion Obama inherited when he took office in January 2009 — is the single biggest blemish on Obama’s record, even if the rapid descent into red began under President George W. Bush.
Glenn Thrush and Reid Epstein’s Politico piece on President Obama’s “debt problem” helps capture a lot of what’s wrong with the larger debate and the political establishment’s confusion about fiscal matters.
It’s the same damn problem that happens when you watch MTP and Dancing Dave and Tom Brokaw discuss anything about economics. They don’t know a damn thing. They just repeat what they’ve heard from their local lying republican friends. Here’s more from Benen.
First, when there’s a global economic crash, and the government needs to invest to rescue the economy, large deficits are good, not bad, especially when borrowing is cheap and easy. Had the president focused on reducing the $1.3 trillion deficit he inherited from Bush/Cheney, instead of job creation and economic growth, the recession would have intensified, and yet, too many reports simply accept it as a given that higher deficits are worthy of condemnation.
Second, under Obama, as the economy started to improve, the deficit started to shrink anyway. Though the political establishment usually ignores these details, the deficit is $300 billion smaller now than when the president took office — marking the fastest deficit reduction since the end of World War II.
Third, Obama keeps pushing massive debt-reduction proposals on the table, as well as all kinds of policies that shrink the deficit (health care reform, cap and trade, Dream Act), but Republicans have opposed all of them.
For Politico, the fact that the national debt is nearly 60% larger necessarily makes this a major “blemish” on the president’s record. This only makes sense, of course, if one assumes that a larger debt is a bad thing — and given the circumstances, it’s not — and that it’s Obama’s policies that are responsible for the increase.
But as we’ve discussed before, that’s simply not the case. The facts are incontrovertible: towards the end of President Clinton’s second term, debt clocks that had been established in various U.S. locations had to be shut down — the deficit had been eliminated and the clocks had never been set to run backwards. By the time Clinton left office in 2001, the nation not only had a large surplus, it was also on track to pay off the entirety of its debt — roughly $5 trillion at the time — by the end of the decade.
Then the Bush/Cheney era happened. Republicans took a massive surplus and turned it into an even more massive deficit, adding the costs of two wars, two tax cuts, Medicare expansion, and a Wall Street bailout to the national charge card.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) later referred to the Bush/Cheney era as a time in which Republicans decided “it was standard practice not to pay for things.” In just eight years, GOP policymakers added $5 trillion to the debt in eight years.
But then Obama was just as reckless, right? Wrong. The key takeaway here is that it’s Republican policies, not the president’s agenda, that’s driving the national debt now and into the future.
Okay, so I’ve made this an extremely long, wonky post and your eyes are probably glazing over by now. The deal is this. We have a huge number of issues facing our country and we have press and a political party that just plain lies and spreads lies on the big ones. We can’t have a discussion on climate change science, or women’s health and reproduction and rape, or economics or a number of things because very few people bring data, science, statistics, and theory to the table. They bring hype and religious and ideological dogma. We continually see Republicans and press folks like Tom Brokaw say the economic equivalent of ‘women who get raped don’t get pregnant because their bodies shut down’ . They don’t even realize they are doing it and no one calls them on it because they get all the air time they want and economists get very little.
So, we’re on the verge of starving children and the elderly based on that level of discussion. How can we possibly get to a more fact-based reality and a healthier economy and democracy with this level of ignorance?
One of the great symbols of US spirit has always been its small businesses. It’s one of those myths that seems to carry everywhere including to views of us in other countries. There are two related memes that go along with this mythic American institution that are not borne out by statistics. The first is that small businesses are the source of employment growth in the country. This is not true. Most small businesses that do not fail stay small. The majority of job growth comes from medium to large businesses. Midsize business are far more important. (Data from the BLS.) The second meme is that either too much regulation or uncertainty created by the government is causing depressed job growth. This is simply not true either.
What does this mean? By any reasonable interpretation, it is mid-size companies that are generating the bulk of the jobs in the recovery. From an economic development perspective, it means that job growth is more likely to come from mid-size companies that are adding several workers or perhaps a couple of dozen new employees, rather than the smallest or largest businesses.
And what are these businesses most worried about today? According to a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (here):
“The two principal impediments to current small-business growth are business uncertainty and weak sales… The single most important indicator that would renew small-business owner confidence in business conditions is increased sales in their businesses.”
The economic recovery is a demand issue.
There is also some strange set of lies out there that the increase in taxes proposed by the Obama Administration on those making over $250k is going to kill small business. Not true again! This tax hike would likely impact only about 3.5% of small businesses. The majority of these are partnerships formed by doctors and lawyers. They are not your average mom and pop store. I just heard Haley Barbor repeat this lie on CNN last night.
But to what extent would Obama’s tax plan actually affect small businesses?
In its latest estimate last month, Congress’s nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found that in 2013, just 3.5 percent of small business tax filers would pay a higher rate — about 940,000 individuals, many of whom are lawyers and doctors in partnerships. But those few percent account for 53 percent of all small business income.
GOP aides accept those facts but they say those few small businesses are the ones overseeing growing companies whom the nation is counting on to hire. According to a variety of analyses, the lion’s share of the tax hike would be absorbed by Americans earning well over $1 million.
Late in 2010, when the same debate played out, William Gale, co-director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, called it a “myth” to suggest that ending the tax cut on top marginal rates would hurt small businesses.
“This claim is misleading,” Gale wrote in the Washington Post. “If the objective is to help small businesses, continuing the Bush tax cuts on high-income taxpayers isn’t the way to go — it would miss more than 98 percent of small-business owners and would primarily help people who don’t make most of their money off those businesses.”
There’s a new study covered by The Washington Monthly that shows that entrepreneurship and small business ownership is on the decline. Get ready for this result. It’s primarily Republican policies that are killing small businesses and not over regulation, over taxation or over anything else. Here’s some interesting information about the decline and how some of it is due to other things too.
Data kept by the Small Business Administration, for instance, shows that the share of the working-age population that is self-employed has been declining since 1994. The share fell steadily until 2002, stayed level between 2003 and 2006, then began to drop again. Overall, between 1994 and 2009, the share declined nearly 25 percent.
This drop in the number of self-employed citizens relative to the overall working population is also captured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which isolates nonfarm workers. The BLS survey asks workers if they are employed by a private company, a nonprofit organization, or the government, or are self-employed. Self-employed workers are further separated into those who have incorporated their businesses and those who have not.
According to the BLS, the number of Americans who are both self-employed and not incorporated has fallen significantly as a share of the working-age population, from 461 per 10,000 in 1990 to 359 in 2011. This decline—more than 22 percent—reversed a long trend in the opposite direction during the 1970s and ’80s. The BLS data shows a somewhat different picture when it comes to self-employed persons who incorporate their businesses. As a share of the working-age population, their ranks grew 35 percent between 1989 and 2008, before dropping off sharply in 2009. Yet this increase in incorporation may be evidence not so much of rising entrepreneurship as of existing unincorporated one-person firms deciding to change their legal status—to take better advantage of new limited liability laws in many states, for instance, in order to cut their tax bills.
Even if we accept this number without question, however, the total share of the self-employed dropped steadily over the last two decades. In 1994 there were roughly 663 self-employed (incorporated and unincorporated) for every 10,000 working-age Americans; by 2009 this number was down to 606, an 8.5 percent decline.
If anything, there’s good reason to believe that this decline in entrepreneurship is even steeper than government data shows, thanks to what appears to be systematic miscategorization by the government of what counts as a true independent company. Since the 1990s, large companies have increasingly relied on temporary help to do work that formerly was performed by permanent salaried employees. These arrangements enable firms to hire and fire workers with far greater flexibility and free them from having to provide traditional benefits like unemployment insurance, health insurance, retirement plans, and paid vacations. The workers themselves go by many different names: temps, contingent workers, contractors, freelancers. But while some fit the traditional sense of what it means to be an entrepreneur or independent business owner, many, if not most, do not—precisely because they remain entirely dependent on a single power for their employment.
Again, it’s not taxes and it’s not over-regulation responsible for the decline. Here are the two major reasons.
Perhaps the most common complaint among small business entrepreneurs is a shortage of financing. While the rise of the venture capital business might give the impression that financial support for entrepreneurs has never been easier to obtain, the truth is that only a tiny fraction of start-ups have access to venture funds. To get their businesses up and running, the vast majority of entrepreneurs today tend to rely at first, as they always have, on a combination of personal savings and contributions from family and friends. But with family balance sheets ravaged by stagnant wages and skyrocketing costs for health care and higher education, fewer and fewer average families have the savings needed to invest in a small business.
The effects of the radical consolidation in the banking industry that began in the 1980s are equally dramatic. Relatively few bank officers today have the leeway and local knowledge to lend to established local businesses, much less new ventures. This is especially true in bad times, when big institutions come under great pressure both from Wall Street and regulators. In Maryland, for example, Bank of America made 312 SBA-guaranteed loans to local businesses in 2007. In 2010, it made two. Consolidation also concentrates the power of a few financial institutions over small businesses, and radically raises the risk that entire funding systems can collapse all at once. The near breakdown of CIT Group in early 2009—averted only by a last-minute deal with bondholders—would have cut more than a million small businesses off from some of the most important forms of day-to-day business financing.
The single biggest factor driving down entrepreneurship is precisely the radical concentration of power we have seen not only in the banking industry but throughout the U.S. economy over the last thirty years. This revolutionary remaking of almost every economic activity in the nation was set in motion in 1981, when officials in the Reagan administration all but suspended traditional enforcement of America’s antimonopoly laws, a change in policy then adopted by every subsequent administration. Since then, regulators have done almost nothing to stop the great waves of mergers and acquisitions, with the result that control over most major economic activities is now more consolidated than at any time since the Gilded Age.
The effects have been nowhere more dramatic than in those sectors that have always been most congenial to individual proprietorships, like retail, services, farming, and small manufacturing. These were the activities most affected, for instance, by the type of “roll-up” strategies pioneered by financiers like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. In the case of the office-supply retailer Staples, Bain’s investment helped propel the company from a one-store operation to a 2,000-store international behemoth. Similar plays resulted in Home Depot capturing a vast proportion of the nation’s hardware business, in Best Buy capturing a vast proportion of America’s electronics business, and in Macy’s capturing a vast proportion of all department store sales. Just one company, Wal-Mart, now controls upward of 50 percent of some lines of grocery and general merchandise business—commerce that a generation ago was divided among tens of thousands of families.
So, next time you think that Republicans are the small business friendly party, think again. It’s clearly the drive towards monopoly, market concentration and policies that benefit the One Percenters that’s killing US small business.
There’s nothing new about trickle-down economics policies and their failure to deliver growth and jobs. The 1980s saw a lot of empirical testing of Reagan-Bush Policies and new growth models. Basically, the parts of these policies that led to growth were those that put money and spending power into the demand side and not the supply side. The failure of the Bush 2 policies to provide sustained growth of jobs and the real economy–as well as real per capita income–reinforced earlier findings. However, this hasn’t stopped the spread of political memes that falsely assert that providing vast wealth for “job creators” is best for an economy. It’s a popular fairy tale spun by Republican Politicians and it’s unsupported by evidence as well as theory.
Development economists have been studying why some countries are rich and some are poor for some time. There have been a number of factors identified that seem to drive growth. Education of women, good legal and justice systems that protect property rights, and basic economic freedom are some of the factors that have been identified over the years. Daron Acemoglu–a Turkish M.I.T. professor–has written an important book based on his research and the research of his colleague James Robinson called “Why Nations Fail”. Their work explains how nations can basically destroy their economic futures when they let their richest citizens loot their poorest. Evidence comes from both historical and present day economies.
Surely even the most kleptocratic dictator would be in favor of economic development. Economic development means greater income, greater taxes and more stuff to grab, so what’s not to like about it? But actually, it often doesn’t work that way.
In the early 1980s in Takasera, a village in Rukum District in western Nepal, a group of locals decided to begin a development project and bought a Swiss-made water mill which would power machinery such as a press to make oil and a saw mill. The community sent a group of men to Kathmandu who learned how to dismantle the machinery and then put it back together again. The machinery was brought back and successfully put into operation. In 1984, a government official wrote saying that in autonomously undertaking this project the community had “usurped the role of the king” and the mill would have to be shut down. When the locals refused, the police was sent to destroy the mill. The mill was only saved because the villagers were able to ambush and disarm the police.
So why was the Nepalese government opposed to the mill? The answer is that the monarchy and the elite surrounding it, who controlled the government, were afraid of becoming political losers. Economic progress brings social and political change, eroding the political power of elites and rulers, who in response often prefer to sacrifice economic development for political stability.
This is a prime example of politicians blocking technology that would improve the country’s economy to maintain political control. This suboptimal outcome is one of many examples the two economists have found and documented in their study.
But through a series of legendary — and somewhat controversial — academic papers published over the past decade, Acemoglu has persuasively challenged many of the previous theories. (If poverty were primarily the result of geography, say, or an unfortunate history, how can we account for the successes of Botswana, Costa Rica or Thailand?) Now, in their new book, “Why Nations Fail,” Acemoglu and his collaborator, James Robinson, argue that the wealth of a country is most closely correlated with the degree to which the average person shares in the overall growth of its economy. It’s an idea that was first raised by [Adam] Smith but was then largely ignored for centuries as economics became focused on theoretical models of ideal economies rather than the not-at-all-ideal problems of real nations.
Consider Acemoglu’s idea from the perspective of a poor farmer. In parts of modern sub-Saharan Africa, as was true in medieval Europe or the antebellum South, the people who work the fields lack any incentive to improve their yield because any surplus is taken by the wealthy elite. This mind-set changes only when farmers are given strong property rights and discover that they can profit from extra production. In 1978, China began allowing farmers to benefit from any surplus they produced. The decision, most economists agree, helped spark the country’s astounding growth.
According to Acemoglu’s thesis, when a nation’s institutions prevent the poor from profiting from their work, no amount of disease eradication, good economic advice or foreign aid seems to help. I observed this firsthand when I visited a group of Haitian mango farmers a few years ago. Each farmer had no more than one or two mango trees, even though their land lay along a river that could irrigate their fields and support hundreds of trees. So why didn’t they install irrigation pipes? Were they ignorant, indifferent? In fact, they were quite savvy and lived in a region teeming with well-intended foreign-aid programs. But these farmers also knew that nobody in their village had clear title to the land they farmed. If they suddenly grew a few hundred mango trees, it was likely that a well-connected member of the elite would show up and claim their land and its spoils. What was the point?
This is basically the idea that disincentives cut both ways which is an idea lost on Republican Politicians. Why work if the fruit of your labor goes to absentee owners and investors?
Acemoglu, Robinson and their collaborators did not come up with the idea that incentives matter, of course, nor the notion that politics play a role in economic development. Their great contribution has been a series of clever historical studies that persuasively argue that the cheesiest of slogans is actually correct: the true value of a nation is its people. If national institutions give even their poorest and least educated citizens some shot at improving their own lives — through property rights, a reliable judicial system or access to markets — those citizens will do what it takes to make themselves and their country richer. This suggests, among other things, that instead of supporting one-off programs promoting health or agricultural productivity, the international community should focus its aid efforts on deep political and economic change.
Perhaps just as interesting, “Why Nations Fail” also shows the effects of different economic and political systems over the centuries. The sections on ancient Rome and medieval Venice are particularly compelling, because they show how fairly open and prosperous societies can revert to closed and impoverished autocracies. It’s hard to read these sections without thinking about the present-day United States, where economic inequality has grown substantially over the past few decades. Is the 1 percent emerging as a wealth-stripping, poverty-inducing elite?
Well, maybe. Acemoglu and Robinson’s frequent collaborator Simon Johnson, the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, told me that financial firms have so thoroughly co-opted the political process that the American economy has become fundamentally unsound. “It’s bad and getting worse,” he told me. Barring some major shift in our political system, he suggested, the United States could be on its way to serious economic failure.
I downloaded their most current working paper which has a lot of political ramifications. (Robinson is a political science professor at Harvard.)It’s on why voters dismantle checks and balances on political and economic elites. You probably want to avoid the model and just look at the bottom line. Essentially, when we remove the checks and balances in our government, we make it easier and cheaper for the richest in the country to bribe the political class. This creates a disconnect between the politics and spending and tax policies. It’s an interesting analysis and way to model the current disconnect between polling of the electorate and policy coming out of legislatures. The most interesting outcome of the model is that this behavior eventually makes every one worse off. The ability of the rich to bribe politicians is central to the outcomes.
Far from seeing China as the clue to spreading prosperity, Acemoglu and Robinson see it as yet another instance of a society rushing into a cul-de-sac. China is not, on their analysis, on course for our own level of prosperity.
Their argument is that the modern level of prosperity rests upon political foundations. Proximately, prosperity is generated by investment and innovation, but these are acts of faith: investors and innovators must have credible reasons to think that, if successful, they will not be plundered by the powerful.
For the polity to provide such reassurance, two conditions have to hold: power has to be centralised and the institutions of power have to be inclusive. Without centralised power, there is disorder, which is anathema to investment.
China most certainly ticks this box – it has centralised power and order in spades. Some African societies don’t; localised power usurps the authority of the state. But China resoundingly fails to tick the box of inclusive institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson quote a summary of the structure of Chinese political power: “The party controls the armed forces; the party controls cadres; and the party controls the news.”
That states need order to prosper is important but no longer controversial. That they need inclusive institutions is, in view of China’s success, wildly controversial. Their argument is that order without inclusive institutions may enable an economy to escape poverty, but will not permit the full ascent to modern prosperity. Their explanation is that if the institutions of power enable the elite to serve its own interest – a structure they term “extractive institutions” – the interests of the elite come to collide with, and prevail over, those of the mass of the population.
So, in order for nations to grow, institutions should focus on inclusion instead of exclusion. This seems like an intuitive suggestion and an unnecessary one for a democracy. However, their work suggests that the rich and political elite will work against this if the right incentives and institutions exist. It’s an interesting way to look at the current situation in the U.S. where politicians–using money from huge donors–work to remove regulations and dismantle organizations that increase inclusion. Notice how public education, community activists, unions, and other institutions aimed at including workers and regular folks into policy making have been demonized recently. I’m definitely up for reading more on this.
The massive loss of economic value that has occurred so far this century should give us pause when we hear about both austerity agendas and slightly improved conditions. Economist Dean Baker reminds us that we’re not looking at clear steering ahead even if we slowly mend. Here are some things to consider. The incredible loss of wealth on the kinds of investments made by average Americans and from the collapse of the housing market has severely weakened millions of Americans and decreased their net worth. Statistics like these are likely to keep older workers on the jobs far past their prime. Baker responds to Daily Beast writer Zachary Karabell.
The unemployment rate for the year is likely to average above 9.0 percent. The number of people who are involuntarily underemployed has generally been 8.5 and 9.0 million, close to double the pre-recession level. Millions more have given up looking for work altogether. Real wages have been stagnant or falling for the last 4 years, with little prospect of turning around any time soon as the high rate of unemployment continues to depress wages.
In addition, tens of millions of baby boomers are approaching retirement with almost nothing to support themselves other than their Social Security. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the median older baby boomer (ages 55-64) had just $162,000 in wealth. This is roughly enough to buy the median home. This means that if this household took all of their wealth, they can pay off their mortgage. They would then be completely dependent on their Social Security to support them in retirement. And, half of older baby boomers have less wealth than this.
In short, most of the country is looking at a situation where they are desperate for work or fearful about losing their job. Older workers are looking at a retirement where they are not far above the poverty level, even after spending a life working in middle class jobs. The bad attitudes toward this situation are not the result of “groupthink” as the column asserts, they are the conclusion of people better able to understand the economy than Karabell.
For extra credit in the acting up department Karabell throws in a few broad assertions that are simply wrong. For example he tells us that:
“Overall growth for the next year is shaping up to be 2 percent, give or take. That is pretty lame compared to the heady days of the 1990s or even the mid-2000s. But those seemingly halcyon periods benefited from bubbles, whether the stock market and telecom spending in the 1990s or the housing and debt-inflated growth of the mid-2000s. So while activity now doesn’t look so good by those comparisons, it is actual economic activity undistorted by bubbles. It’s as if the economy of the past 20 years was wearing platform shoes (“Wow, she’s like 6 feet tall”); it looked a lot bigger than it was.”
Actually 2.0 percent annual growth would look bad compared to the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, and the 50s. It is simply a very bad growth rate. Trend productivity growth in the U.S. is between 2.0 and 2.5 percent. Labor force growth is averaging around 0.7 percent. This means that we need growth of around 2.5 -3.0 percent just to keep even with the growth of the labor force. At a 2.0 percent growth rate unemployment will be rising, not falling. This has nothing to with platform shoes, it’s arithmetic.
Furthermore, given the severity of the downturn we should be seeing growth in a 5-8 percent range to get the economy back to its potential level of output. People should be outraged at the thought that the economy might only grow at a 2.0 percent rate.
Lengthened work lives and growth too small to replace jobs lost over the last five years is likely to keep pressure on younger workers. Even younger workers that are well educated and should have decent job skills are not able to find decent, well-paying jobs in this economy. They also have made huge investments in their educations and are carrying high levels of student loan debt. The Atlantic Wire says that we may have a ‘lost generation’ in the making.
During the last decade, the unemployment rate for young people spiked to the highest levels since World War II–only 55 percent of Americans aged 16 to 29 have jobs, a 12 percent drop from the employment rate in 2000. Faced with a grim outlook, many young people aren’t leaving home until their 30s–the number of Americans aged 25 to 34 living with their parents jumped 25 percent during the recession. Last month, The New York Timescalled the collective youth “Generation Limbo,” but after seeing the new census data, Harvard economist Richard Freeman takes it a stage further. “These people will be scarred, and they will be called the ‘lost generation’–in that their careers would not be the same way if we had avoided this economic disaster,” Freeman told The Associated Press. The world has seen a number of lost generations in the past century. Gertrude Stein first coined the term in 1920s in reference to the Europeans who grew up during World War I, but it’s most recently referred to Japanese youth who grew up during that country’s recession in the 1990s. In Japan, the lost youth are referred to as the hikikomori, and the decade of widespread unemployment meant that many of them never had the chance to start careers. In the 10 years of recession in Japan the number of young people working temporary or contract jobs doubled, and the collective hopelessness lead to a sky-rocketing suicide rate.
A country with an economy that relies heavily on household spending cannot thrive and grow under these scenarios. It is well known in macroeconomic research that high, sustained levels of unemployment have a multiplying impact on the rate of economic growth. An economic forecast prepared by Goldman Sachs considers government policy an “impediment to growth”. Fiscal tightening on both the state and national level will make things much worse.
Given the fiscal outlook remains difficult, we believe we’re unlikely to get further stimulus, and that government will continue to be a modest drag on growth. We believe we will see an increase in the rate of fiscal tightening at the federal level over the next couple of years. Fiscal policy was a boost in 2009, roughly neutral in 2010, and in 2011, roughly a 1 percentage point drag. In 2012, the impact depends on upcoming policy decisions. At best from a short-term perspective, if the Obama administration’s package passed, which seems quite unlikely, fiscal drag would be neutralized; at worst, if all temporary stimulus expires, we’d expect a fiscal drag of more than 1 1/2 percentage points of growth in early 2012. The more likely, middle ground outcome: the administration and Congress agree on tax-related proposals and probably extend the one-year payroll tax cut for one more year. There will be a bigger problem in 2013 with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, as well as any fiscal stimulus measures.
I think it’s rather telling to characterize our government as a drag on economic growth. It’s clear that partisan politics have put elections and ideology ahead of any concern for the future of our country. Nothing we’re talking about here is something that shouldn’t be known by folks who had an introductory university economics courses. We’re unfortunately captured by a group of people in power that have no concern for the good of the country as a whole.
Paul Krugman put up this graph showing the level of Gross Investment by State and Local Governments. This would be the kinds of infrastructure that support modern life as we know it and include things like roads, bridges, new school buildings, sewers, airports, and other things that also drive local business growth. As you can see, there is a serious lack of infrastructure investments by state and local governments this century. Since interest rates are cheap, now is a good time to do these kinds of long term projects that would provide jobs and incentives for local businesses to expand. The majority of our states have balanced budget amendments which disallow deficit spending and in some cases, borrowing. Long term investment is nearly impossible in many states. Krugman argues that the timing is right to invest in roads, bridges, airports, and other important public projects. It’s a perfect time to look at an Infrastructure Bank which had broad bipartisan support during the Bush/Cheney years. President Obama has proposed such an institution.
The proposal, modeled after a bipartisan bill in the Senate, would take $10 billion in start-up money and identify transportation, water or energy projects that lack funding. Eligible projects would need to be worth at least $100 million and provide “a clear public benefit.” The bank would then work with private investors to finance the project through cheap long-term loans or loan guarantees, with the government picking up no more than half the tab — ideally, much less — for any given project.
There is still this insane argument out there that the US is going broke and can’t afford to spend any money. This confuses the institution of government with households and businesses. A government has the ability tax and the national government has the ability to print money and borrow in perpetuity. This country spent far more of its future output during the Great Depression and World War 2 and the results speak for themselves. We’ve had most of this decade’s fiscal policy using taxes to encourage gambling for paper profits, not actual production of goods and services. Europe’s policy makers are stuck in the same mindset. You would think that the experiences between the two world wars would’ve made an impression on them. We’ve spent trillions of dollars propping up the world’s gambling houses without telling them they must lend for productive purposes as a condition of those bailouts. I have no idea how many more years that economists will have to scream that it’s the aggregate demand stupid at policy makers, but I have a feeling we won’t be stopping any time soon.