Investing in the Environment

February 21, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining government’s environmental options.

The environment is the crux of emerging industry. It doesn’t just enable us to breathe better and protect our children’s lives. It is a growing industry which America could dominate if we tried. It is and will be crucial to housing materials, and protecting existing investments of all kinds. Places and countries that don’t protect their environments will not attract entrepreneurs, workers or investments. Their infrastructure will clog along with people’s lungs.

And as it becomes cheaper solar and wind make other industries possible – sun and wind don’t charge by the hour. Falling behind in environmental infrastructure means disaster, abandoned communities if they don’t first fall into the sea.

As simple a gesture as writing land-planning rules so that new construction has the best orientation to the sun cuts expenses forever. Supporting science, instead of taking scientific findings off government websites, will lead to other helpful steps America could take. Plus everything we do for the environment will depend on putting people to work to get it done.

Yes I know, there are shifts in world temperatures that are not man made. New York was once covered with a huge sheet of ice. Nevertheless, we also know, independently, that carbon and methane are driving global warming. Even if natural processes affect the temperature of our world, mankind is making it much worse. We could take action to bring that down unless we put our heads firmly in the sand. Fighting to minimize climate change is good for the economy. Losing that fight isn’t. It means rescuing people, pulling them away from the coasts, crowding them into smaller less productive areas. More than that, it means that many of the places we live will become uninhabitable. Only the mortuaries will do well.

I once chatted with an engineer about the effects of climate change. I knew that his house is in New York City, only 8 feet above sea level and not far from the coast. So I suggested he move to higher ground. He responded that if the sea rose 8 feet, New York City would be unlivable. The infrastructure of the city wouldn’t work. Roads and streets would be submerged or collapse. It wouldn’t be worth staying even on higher ground. So I suggested moving up here – the Hudson may be at sea level but most of us are much higher than that. His response was chilling but one would be a fool to assume he was wrong. He said that none of us would be safe if 8 million New Yorkers, or more from the metropolitan area or the East Coast, became refugees. Wow. His point is that if large numbers of us become desperate, and remember that most Americans live near the coasts, then all bets are off.

Remember the resistance in Congress to repairing the damage from Sandy. That doesn’t even compare to the costs of a rising sea.

So fighting climate change is good for jobs, protects us from economic collapse, and gives our children and grandchildren something to live for. That’s a heck of a worthwhile investment, and a collective, patriotic goal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 21, 2017.


Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


People bear the cost for rulers’ misbehavior

March 29, 2016

In a still unpublished manuscript on the way conservative economics has failed us, my friend Eric Zuesse remarked, “The ‘Greek debt’ is really not a debt of the Greek people.” He goes on to identify the “institutional creditors  … Euro-banks … high risk kleptocrats, oligarchs and bankers who siphoned most of the euros into overseas Swiss accounts …. [and other foreign investments] devoid of any capacity to generate income to pay back the debt.”

Eric’s statement is profound, pointing to the ways that those in power play with our lives and then displace the responsibility to their innocent victims. While I’m sure that some will argue that elections gave the Greek people some complicity, Eric accurately points to the ability of those primarily responsible to displace the costs of their own misbehavior.

I think we can see that pattern all over modern public affairs. What responsibility did the refugees in Syria or Iraq have for the wars that took their lives, homes and livelihoods? What responsibility did unemployed Americans have for the depression that was engineered by banks too big to fail, banks which traded worthless securities in an enormous Ponzi scheme for which they have not been prosecuted? The Supreme Court has cleared the manufacturers of failed medical devices for rupturing in our bodies but why is it somehow the responsibility of the victims to absorb the injuries and the costs? This is a pattern – the rich and powerful do the damage and outsource the costs to the rest of us.

Terrorists take advantage of that. They attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. But the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have paid the price of our response, innocent men, women and children, polarizing regions and sweeping us into the worldwind. Our failure to calibrate the response had much wider repercussions.

The British, French, Germans and Spanish have suffered similar terrorist attacks, actually over many decades from many different groups, but they have managed to restrain their responses. England fought in the so-called “troubles” of Northern Ireland but finally learned that their response was devastating the wrong people and making the problem worse. The Spanish restrained their response to the Basques. All restrained their response to leftist terror. They responded with police work, ultimately capturing and trying many of the terrorists.

For many Americans anything but an all-out response seems unacceptable. Politicians attack restraint as weakness, not strength. And of course ordinary Americans pay the price. We pay it in the deficit, in taxes, in the lives of our loved ones in foreign wars, and in civil liberties at home. But those who benefit are immune. Major suppliers of paramilitary forces abroad like Blackwater and Halliburton get more contracts while they supply deniability to American leadership for their violations of human rights.

These are bad bargains. Will we have leadership capable of leading, capable of explaining to the American people and standing strong in the face of hotheads for whom an indiscriminate overreaction is the only so-called “manly” response. Will we have leadership capable of zeroing in on the perpetrators of economic collapse, mortgage failure, and malfunctioning products?

Isn’t it time to stop blaming the people for the misbehavior of the oligarchs? Or will the rulers, paraphrasing Thomas Hardy’s conclusion to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, end their sport with us?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 29, 2016.


Who We Work to Support

September 29, 2015

We’ve all seen bumper stickers that complain, “I work so welfare queens don’t have to” and other complaints about taking care of people in need. Conservatives, Republicans, Tea Partiers all tell us the problem is “entitlements.” And people are mad. They do not want to work to pay for other people’s entitlements.

Except it is impossible. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.[i]  And the top 20% of American households, whose average income was around a quarter million dollars get the majority of Americans’ yearly income from all sources.[ii] So, yes, we work for others, but not for the people who are poor, unemployed or disabled. We work to support the wealth of the people who get all the money. They claim not to need our help, but only because they already took our money.

They want us to believe that’s just “natural,” that they have that money because they sold us such useful things, and whatever the market does is perfectly proper. But actually it’s because of all the tax benefits they have, so that Warren Buffet properly pointed out that his secretary pays a larger percent of her earnings than he does. As Buffet understood, that’s not natural. It’s the kleptomania of the rich, the people who control the lobbyists for themselves and their businesses and who finance the political campaigns of the lackeys we call congressmen and senators.

Their forms of income are protected – the top tax rate is no longer high but they still get a break for capital gains, deductions for all the lobbyists and accountants they pay to make sure they don’t pay their share of the tax burden, and the privilege of moving their money to tax havens. Of course they will lend back to government, at interest, the money they aren’t investing in job creating activities, the money they have protected themselves from having to pay as taxes like the rest of us.

It’s also because they convince their lackeys that their companies shouldn’t be regulated either; they should be allowed to monopolize markets so we’d fill their pockets faster, and they should get government help for the very financial vehicles they used to wreck the economy, instead of helping the people that they took advantage of in scams called derivatives, credit-default swaps and subprime mortgages. It’s all rigged and it isn’t you and me that are taking advantage of the system.

But their lackeys say they’re the job creators – indeed even while they are sitting on money they don’t think it worth their while to spend. That’s called chutzpah!

What’s worse, this is a vicious cycle – the rich control the politics so they can get wealthier and control the system ever more tightly. When does it reach a point when we no longer have a democracy? Indeed, what kind of democracy is it if all the candidates have to get the blessing of the enemies of the people.  Is that the democracy we fought for? And can we get it back?

— commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 29, 2015.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, NY Times, July 23, 2014. See also Tom Kertscher and Greg Borowski (March 10, 2011). “The Truth-O-Meter Says: True- Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined”. PolitiFact.
[ii] The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes, 2011, Congressional Budget Office Report, November 12, 2014, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/49440.

Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 2015.


How America Would Handle Greece

July 14, 2015

What are the lessons from the Greek crisis? Their economy had major problems. People with plenty of money weren’t bothering to pay taxes. And the Greek government provided benefits beyond its means and beyond the pace of investment to maintain. So the EU was certainly correct that Greece had problems that Greece has to deal with. But that’s not the whole story. Greece needed multiple remedies, to cure its mistakes but also to stimulate its economy.

Think about what we do in America. Periodically states are bankrupt or depressed. We don’t offer secession or a sale to Mexico. We didn’t ignore problems in Appalachia, Arkansas and other struggling states. Within states, we don’t ignore depressed areas. Sometimes we put communities in receivership, but that’s not our only tool. Although Tea Party Republicans don’t want to recognize it, we do have another American strategy – we invest. The Cuomo Administration is investing in areas around colleges and universities, spread throughout the state. We’ve had business empowerment zones. Military bases have been used for economic purposes. And we build infrastructure or housing or convention centers. Some investments are unwise wishful thinking. But the instinct is shared, American, and, used intelligently, it works. Conservatives don’t like to admit the Keynesian economics behind it, but they use these techniques wherever they are in control. They just call it good business.

States are barred by the Constitution from printing money. If Greece exited the Eurozone, it could issue currency or pay its employees with i.o.u.s for use as currency. Either way a devalued currency could make Greek goods and services worth buying.

Greece’s finance minister accurately explained that austerity deepens recession. The EU has responded with the same economic strategies that had been discredited before the Great Depression of the ‘30s. If the economy shrinks in response to austerity, nothing is left to pay debts, much less to invest. For an economy in trouble austerity alone is the wrong prescription at the wrong time for the wrong disease. It works only if the desired outcome is to kill the patient. Unfortunately, the EU hasn’t used other tools needed to deal with the recession.

The lesson here is the contrast. Cutting expenses cannot be the only tool. Investment works. Infrastructure, science and educational investments work. Congressional conservatives are too skittish about investing in America. They need to do what their own state governors do – invest in economic development. There is plenty of room in the U.S. for investment that will contribute to the American economy. Intelligent public investment can yield multiple rewards: the immediate reward of assisting people get back on their feet, the return of some of that money as taxes, and the longer term rewards of facilitating business. That is the virtuous cycle that every good economy needs.

Neither taxes nor tax cuts automatically yield economic benefits. Cutting business taxes will probably not raise the chances of business investment if they are already sitting on money. Cutting personal taxes won’t put us on the road to recovery to the extent that consumers buy abroad. The devil is in the details. But the visceral objection to all investment by government because it is government needs to give way to a more intelligent discussion of the investment we need and the investment that will pay dividends for years.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 14, 2015.


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