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Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


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How States Can Save Billions

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We’ve been reading a lot about fallout lately.  The Fukushima power plant disaster is now providing a lasting legacy all over the world.  This animation from the French national meteorological service, Météo-France, illustrates how the spread of the Fukushima fallout is migrating.

For the past three years, we have been living with the fallout from a financial “meltdown”, which resulted from deregulation, greed and the culture of “pervasive permissiveness” at the Federal Reserve, as discussed in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report.  The fallout from the financial meltdown has also spread across the entire world.  Different countries have employed different approaches for coping with the situation.  In Ireland, the banks were bailed out at taxpayer expense, crippling that nation’s economy for generations to come.  As a result, the Irish citizens fought back, went to the polls and ousted the perfidious politicians who helped the banks avoid responsibility for their transgressions.   On the other hand, in Portugal, the government refused to impose austerity measures on the citizens, who should not be expected to pay the price for the financial mischief that gave rise to the current economic predicament.  Given the additional fact that Portugal, as a nation, was not a “player” in the risky games that nearly brought down the world economy, the recent decision by the Portuguese parliament is easy to understand.

In our own country, the various states have found it quite difficult to balance their budgets.  High unemployment, which refuses to abate, and depressed real estate valuation have devastated each state’s revenue base.  Because the states cannot print money, as the Federal Reserve does in order to pay the federal government’s bills, it has become necessary for the states to rely on creative gimmicks to reverse their misfortunes.  Most states had previously deployed numerous “economic development projects” over the years.  Such projects are taxpayer-funded subsidies to attract corporations and entice them to establish local operations.  Rex Nutting of MarketWatch recently took a critical look at those programs:

And yet, study after study show that these subsidies create few, if any, net jobs.  For instance, California’s Enterprise Zone program – which is supposed to boost business in 42 economically distressed communities – has cost the taxpayers $3.6 billion over 27 years, but to no avail.  A legislative analyst report in 2005 found that “EZs have little if any impact on the creation of new economic activity or employment.” Read more from the legislative analyst report.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to kill the EZ program and the even-more expensive redevelopment agency program, but he faces an uphill fight in the Legislature.  Such subsidies are popular with the legislators who receive boatloads of campaign contributions from businesses lucky enough to find a government teat to latch on to.

Nationwide, such giveaways from state and municipal governments amounted to more than $70 billion in 2010, according to Kenneth Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who has specialized in studying these subsidies.  That’s more than the states collect in corporate income taxes in a good year.  Read about Thomas’s book: “Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital”

And that $70 billion is twice as much money as would be required to fully fund the pensions owed to state and local government workers, the very same pensions that budget-cutting politicians across the country claim are responsible for the fiscal hole we’re in.

What Rex Nutting has suggested amounts to the elimination of a significant number of corporate welfare programs.  He has also dared to challenge the corporatist mantra that corporate welfare “creates jobs”.  We are supposed to believe that the only way states can balance their budgets is through the imposition of draconian austerity programs, designed to force the “little people” to – once again – pay the tab for Wall Street’s binge.  Because the voters have no lobbyists to protect their own interests, venal state and local politicians have set about slashing public safety expenditures (through mass layoffs of police and firefighters), closing parks and libraries, as well as under-funding public school systems.

Never mind that state and local governments could save $70 billion by cutting just one form of corporate welfare.  They would rather let you watch your house burn down.  You can’t afford that house anyway.


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Some Good News For Once

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Since the Great Recession began three years ago, Americans have been receiving a daily dose of the most miserable news imaginable.  Our prevalent nightmare concerns the possibility that gasoline prices could find their way up to $10 per gallon as Muammar Gawdawful takes Libya into a full-scale civil war.

Some people tried to find a thread of hope in the latest non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The report was spun in several opposing directions by various commentators.  The single statement from the BLS report which seemed most important to me was the remark in the first sentence that    “. . .  the unemployment rate was little changed at 8.9 percent . . .”.  Nevertheless, David Leonhardt of The New York Times noted his suspicion that “the government is understating actual job growth” while providing his own upbeat read of the report.  On the other hand, at the Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden made this observation:

Wonder why the unemployment rate is at an artificially low 8.9%?  Three simple words:  Labor Force Participation.  At 64.2%, it was unchanged from last month, and continues to be at a 25 year low.  Should the LFP return to its 25 trendline average of 66.1%, the unemployment rate would be 11.6%.

Indeed, the ugly truth is that as you spend more time pondering the current unemployment situation, you find an increasingly dismal picture.  Economist Mark Thoma came up with a “back of the envelope calculation” of the benchmarks he foresees as the unemployment situation abates:

7% unemployment in July of 2012

6% unemployment in March of 2013

5% unemployment in December of 2013

4% unemployment in September of 2014

If anything, relative to the last two recoveries, this forecast is optimistic.  Even so, it will still take two years to get to 6% unemployment (and if the natural rate is closer to 5.5% at that time, as I expect it will be, it will take another five months to fully close the gap). Things may be looking up, but we have a long way to go and it’s too soon to turn our backs on the unemployed.

Only three more years until we return to pre-crisis levels!  Whoopie!

For those in search of genuinely good news, I went on a quest to come up with some for this piece.  Here’s what I found:

For the truly desperate, the Salon website has introduced a new weekly feature entitled, “The Week In Uppers”.  It is a collection of stories, often including video clips, which will (hopefully) make you smile.  The items are heavy on good deeds – sometimes by celebrities.

I was quite surprised by this next “good news” item:  A report by Rex Nutting of MarketWatch, revealing this welcome fact:

.   .   .  the United States remains the biggest manufacturing economy in the world, producing about 20% of the value of global output in 2010  . . .  (Although fast-growing China will pass the United States soon enough.)

Even though we may soon drop to second place, at least our unemployment rate should be in decline by that point.  Here are some more encouraging factoids from Rex Nutting’s essay:

In 2010, U.S. factories shipped $5.03 trillion worth of goods out the door, up 9% from 2009’s horribly depressed output, according to the Census Bureau.

*   *   *

In 2010 alone, productivity in the manufacturing sector surged 6.7%. Fortunately for workers, it looks as if companies have squeezed as much extra output out of labor as they can right now.  For the first time since 1997, factories actually added jobs during the calendar year in 2010, as they hired 112,000 additional workers.

There will be further job gains as factories ramp up their production to meet rising demand, economists say.

According to the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly survey of corporate purchasing managers, business is booming.  The ISM index rose for a seventh straight month in February to 61.4%, matching the highest reading since 1983.

*   *   *

What is the ISM telling us?  “The manufacturing sector is on fire,” says Stephen Stanley, chief economist for Pierpont Securities.  The new orders index rose to 68%, the highest since 2004, and the employment index rose to 64.5%, the highest since 1973.

Factories are hiring because orders are stacking up faster than they can produce goods.

What’s behind the boom?  In part, it’s domestic demand for capital goods and consumer goods.  Businesses are finally beginning to believe in the recovery, so they’re starting to expand, which means new equipment must be purchased.

Be sure to read the full report if you want to re-ignite those long, lost feelings of optimism.

It’s nice to know that if you look hard enough you can still find some good news (at least for now).


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