Posts tagged ‘Japan’

Final Indicator, if You Needed One, of a Looming China Crash

Here is what I remember from the late 1980's - just about every technocratic pundit of the leftish bent, and a number on the right, all hailed Japan as the government economic planning model the US should follow.  One fawning essay after another lauded Japan's MITI and its top-down approach to economic investment.

Practically within hours of when these editorials peaked, the Japanese economy began to crumble.  We know now that MITI and other Japanese officials were creating gross distortions and misallocations in the economy, and inflating an economic bubble with gobs of cheap credit.  These distortions have still not been entirely cleared from the Japanese economy 20 years later, and the country experienced what was called "the lost decade" which may become the lost two decades.

For over a year, it has appeared to me (and many other observers more knowledgeable than I) that China was headed for a crash for many of the same reasons as Japan.  I am now sure this is true,

The current debates about China's currency, the trade imbalance, our debt and China's excessive use of pirated American intellectual property are evidence that the Global Revolution—coupled with Deng Xiaoping's government-led, growth-oriented reforms—has created the planet's second-largest economy. It's on a clear trajectory to knock America off its perch by 2025....

There is no doubt that China will pass the US in total economic size -- it has three times more people than we do.  But their success is clearly due to the small dollops of free enterprise that are allowed in a statist society, and advances are made in spite of, not because of, the meddling state.

Exactly how much economic progress had China made before its leaders brought in the very free market ideas Stern says are dead?  None, of course.  To read China as a triumph of statism and as the death nell of capitalism, when in fact it is one of the greatest examples in history of the power of capitalist ideas and how fast they can turn around a starving and poverty-stricken country, is just willful blindness.

I will include just one other excerpt

While we debate, Team China rolls on. Our delegation witnessed China's people-oriented development in Chongqing, a city of 32 million in Western China, which is led by an aggressive and popular Communist Party leader—Bo Xilai. A skyline of cranes are building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily—including, our delegation was told, 700,000 units of public housing annually.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government can boast that it has established in Western China an economic zone for cloud computing and automotive and aerospace production resulting in 12.5% annual growth and 49% growth in annual tax revenue, with wages rising more than 10% a year.

My first thought on reading this was that Houston used to look exactly like this, with cranes all over the place building things, until we had an Administration that actively opposed expansion of domestic oil production.  My second thought is that this reads so much like the enthusiast essays written by leftists when they used to visit the Soviet Union and came back telling us Russia was so much superior to the US -- just look at the Moscow subway!

The emergence of hundreds of millions of people in China and India from poverty is exciting as hell, and at some level I don't blame Stern for his excitement.  But I fear that what he is seeing is the US housing bubble on steroids, a gross misallocation of capital and resources driven by a few technocrats who think they can manage a billion person economy from their office in Beijing.

Disclosure:  I seldom do anything but invest in generic bond funds and US stock funds, but right now I am out of US equities and I have a number of shorts on Chinese manufacturing and real estate.

Post Hoc Prioritization

For a while, there has been a contrarian school of thought in historical study of WWII that FDR, wishing to have the US enter the way against a strong isolationist streak in the general population, purposefully ignored evidence of an impending Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in order to create a casus belli.  A few historians have used some intelligence warmings combined with the insane un-preparedness of Pearl Harbor as their evidence.   Instapundit links to a new declassified memo that warns of Japanese interest in Hawaii just three days before the attack.

This is a fun but generally foolish game.  The same game was played after 9/11, pointing to a few scraps of intelligence that were "ignored."  But the problem in intelligence isn't always lack of information, but too much information.  In late 1941, the US government was getting warnings from everywhere about just about everything.   It is easy as a historian to pick out four or five warnings and say they were stupidly (or purposely) ignored, but this fails to address the real point -- that those warnings were accompanied by a thousand false or misleading ones at the same time.  The entire Pacific theater had already had a whole series of alerts in the months leading up to Dec 7, one false alarm after another.  It is Monday morning quarterbacking that strips the intelligence problem of its context.  To prove that something unusual happened, one would have to show that these warnings were processed or prioritized in a manner that was unusual for the time.

And sure, the readiness issue at Pearl Harbor is inexcusable.  But while historians can always find a few people at the time who argued that Pearl Harbor was the most logical attack target, this ignores the thousands in and outside the military who thought the very idea of so audacious an attack that far from Japan was absurd.   Historians are failing in their job when they strip these decisions of context (if you really, really want to get on someone about preparedness, how about McArthur, who allowed most of his air force to be shot up on the ground despite having prior notification of the Pearl Harbor attack hours before).

It's Hard To Change Corporate DNA

Especially when the government is doing all it can to damp the forces of evolution and extinction.  Via Mickey Kaus

Dysfunctional–or at any rate, not-functional-enough–corporate cultures are hard to change. That would include both the culture of the Old GM and that of many of its suppliers. Obama should have been more skeptical about “New GM’s” ability to turn itself around with its same old workforce and same old union

I warned of something similar long before GM was rescued by Bush and Obama:

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM’s DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

A China Scare I Might Actually Entertain

I am not one for China-bashing (or Japan-bashing 20 years ago).  But it is interesting to consider just how sane and peaceful a country will be if it is dominated by 100 million men who can't get laid.

Labor and Capital Mobility, and the Recovery

I was thinking this weekend that one reason the US recovery may be slow is related to labor and capital mobility.

One substantial avenue to recovery in a recession has always been labor and capital mobility.  The fast labor and capital can be redeployed from losing industries to improving ones, the faster a recovery occurs.  One reasons Japan and certain European countries have had slower recoveries in the past than the US is that our mobility was higher and barriers to entrepreneurship lower.

But it strikes me that two things are going on in the US to endanger this advantage we have always enjoyed

  1. The government push for home ownership has turned out to be a trap.  Not only did it help create the bubble, whose bursting destroyed a lot of real and paper wealth, but it has greatly reduced labor mobility.  Home ownership makes labor mobility much harder even in a good housing market when one can sell his or her home easily.  In a bad market like today, very few feel they can pick up and move.  I might want to give up on the construction industry in Michigan and move to the oil patch of North Dakota, but how can I do that if I own a home that I can't sell?  A number of other actions, most notably the repeated extension of unemployment benefits, contributes to the lack of mobility.
  2. The government seems hell bent on doing everything it can to prevent, even reverse the tide, of capital mobility.  The government shifted tends of billions of capital into auto industry hands that had destroyed value for decades.  It continues to put the brakes on what should be an oil and gas exploration and production boom.  It kills health industries like light bulbs and shifts billions into useless politically powerful hands making ethanol.  The NLRB is preventing major American manufacturers from making factory investments in southern states.

In the late 1970's, the auto industry was in trouble but the oil patch was booming.  The Houston newspapers sold well in Michigan, popular for their help wanted ads.  From space, the Interstate highways between the Detroit and Texas probably looked orange from all the U-haul trailers.

The exact same dynamics could and should be occurring today.  Capital and labor should be shifting from, for example, the failing auto industry to the growing energy sector.  But the government today stands to block this reallocation. It is raising taxes on oil companies and placing barriers to their growth, while giving tax money to the auto industry and using every bit of power it can to sustain it.  Combine this type of barrier to capital flows (and auto/energy is but a couple of examples) with rising barriers to entrepreneurship, and it should be no surprise that growth is abysmal.

This is what happens in a corporate state.  Past winners retain huge amounts of power in the government long after their companies have become senescent in the marketplace.  Politicians argue for the power to pick winners and losers in the economy but generally use it only to protect current competitors and stand in the way of progress.

To Which I Would Add One More Concern

Don Boudreaux had these two rejoinders to the notion that the GM bailout is a success simply because GM is making a profit.

Economically literate opponents of the Detroit bailout never denied that pumping hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into Detroit automakers would restore those companies to health.  Instead, they argued, first, that bailing out Detroit takes resources from other valuable uses.  Because he doesn’t even recognize that other valuable uses were sacrificed by this bailout, Mr. Dionne offers no reason to think that the value of saving Detroit automakers exceeds the value of what was sacrificed to do so.  No legitimate declaration that the bailout is successful is possible, however, without evidence that the value of what was saved exceeds the value of what was sacrificed.

Economically literate bailout opponents argued also that it sets a bad precedent.  By signaling to big corporations that government stands ready to pay the tab for the consequences of their poor decisions, big corporations will more likely make poor decisions in the future.  It’s far too early for Mr. Dionne to conclude that this prediction is mistaken.

I would offer a third concern -- that the government has kept hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and billions of dollars of physical assets under the management of the same group that have decidedly underutilized these assets in the past.  A bankruptcy without Federal intervention would likely have shifted assets and skilled workers into new companies with different management teams and cultures pursuing different strategies with different information.

I always have trouble explaining this issue to people.   Think of a sports team with great players but a lousy coach and management team.  Having the government ensure that the lousy management stays in control of the great players is a waste for everyone.  I explained it more in depth in this post, where I concluded

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case – Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA...

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Shifting Capital from the Productive to the Sexy

My Forbes column this week focuses on the US rail system, and argues that despite all the angst that we are somehow missing the boat in emulating Europe, Japan and China in building expensive bullet trains, we actually have the best rail system in the world.

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff.  We are “asleep.”  Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occured when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

Taking Local News Too Far

Perhaps this is just a pet peeve of mine, but I really hate it when local news organizations try to find a local angle to a huge international story.  This headline from the Arizona Republic today is a good example:

No injuries reported to workers in Japan employed by Arizona companies

When You Have A Hammer, Everything Looks Like A Nail

Via Tom Nelson, here is an article today at Grist about today's Tsunami's called "This is what climate change looks like"

So far, today's tsunami has mainly affected Japan -- there are reports of up to 300 dead in the coastal city of Sendai -- but future tsunamis could strike the U.S. and virtually any other coastal area of the world with equal or greater force, say scientists. In a little-heeded warning issued at a 2009 conference on the subject, experts outlined a range of mechanisms by which climate change could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity.

"When the ice is lost, the earth's crust bounces back up again and that triggers earthquakes, which trigger submarine landslides, which cause tsunamis," Bill McGuire, professor at University College London, told Reuters.

When I look at events today, I think not of "climate change" but of "development".  Compare the casualties from today in Japan and Hawaii and the US west coast to those in, say, Indonesia.  Development saves lives through better construction, better communication, better early warning systems, and better transportation networks.   If one really wants to think about today's events in the context of climate change, think about the alarmists' proposed tradeoff between small and uncertain changes in the climate vs. almost certain reduction in development through climate-change programs.

Green Jobs? Or Green Hole in the Ground We Pour Money Into?

From the Japan Times"

None of the government's 214 biomass promotion projects — with public funding coming to ¥6.55 trillion — over the past six years has produced effective results in the struggle against global warming, according to an official report released Tuesday.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, which evaluates public works projects, urged the agriculture and five other ministries conducting biomass projects using sewage sludge, garbage and wood, to take corrective action.

The Seen and Unseen: Passenger Rail Edition

We have all heard environmentalists and other American intellectual snobs lamenting that we just are not as smart as Europeans because we have so much less passenger rail.  But because freight and high-speed passenger rail service does not coexist well on the same tracks, urging more passenger rail on the US rail net is effectively asking for more freight to be dumped onto the highways.

Megan McArdle writes:

Moving freight by rail rather than by truck is an enormous carbon saving; one locomotive can haul as much as hundreds of trucks.  It also reduces highway congestion.  Unfortunately, it's hard for passengers and freight to share tracks.  In part, it's difficult simply because it's expensive to upgrade track to handle passenger speeds, but also because freight moves much more slowly, and on an irregular schedule.
I might well argue that if we were simply trying to maximize environmental benefit, we'd ignore passenger rail, and focus on upgrading our freight systems, which sorely need it.  Moreover, these upgrades could largely be made without the massive procedural obstacles that block new high speed rail lines.

But freight rail is not sexy.  It does not excite donors, and it does not excite most of the voters who are motivated by high speed rail.  Politicians win votes by delivering (or at least promising) highly visible improvements; not by silently enhancing the movement of goods from port to Wal-Mart.

I am not sure politicians really have to do anything other stay out of the way (we already have among the cheapest rail rates in the world, 1/2 of China's and 1/8 of Germany's).  The numbers on freight movement are pretty dramatic:

See the percentage of goods moved by freight, which is dramatically higher for the US.  The end result is we have a LOT less freight on our roads than the EU or Japan, and might have even less if US maritime laws had not done so much to kill coastal shipping.
This is the great unseen in all these "sophisticated" conversations about Europe.  These Euro-philes are so much smarter than the rest of us that they manage to ignore the most important part of the equation  (largely because it is unseen and not sexy).  In fact, the US has the best rail system in the world, and in fact the governments of Europe and Japan have likely sub-optimized their rail systems by forcing their focus towards passengers rather than freight.
I will leave the last word to the Anti-Planner:

Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers, while America's system is run mainly for freight. Europe's rail system has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by highway. Here in the U.S., highway's share of freight travel is only 29 percent, while the auto's share of passenger travel is about 82 percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the highway.

True Cost of the GM Bankruptcy

As can be expected, the media really did a poor job of covering the GM IPO, consistently underestimating the total public cost of the bailout (e.g. no one is mentioning the $45 billion in tax-loss carryforwards GM was allowed to keep, against all precedent).

But the real cost of the handling of the GM bankruptcy is in 1) the terrible precedents it set in hammering secured creditors to the benefit of favored political allies of the Administration and 2) the loss of the opportunity to get billions of dollars in production assets out of the hands of the people who have be sub-optimizing them.

It was this latter issue I have focused the most on, particularly in this post where I argued for letting GM die.  I said in part:

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA.  ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one"¦ for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Japanese Life Expectancy May Be Overstated due to Zombies

Via Watts Up With That:

In another example of vital statistics being grossly distorted by a combination of poor record keeping and possibly people with a selfish agenda, it is being reported in the Guardian and elsewhere that possibly hundreds of thousands of people over age 100 in Japan are actually dead, but unreported. Investigations are now underway to determine how much of this problem is due to record keeping problems and how much to family members failing to report the deaths of their elderly relatives in order to continue to collect their pension benefits by fraudulent means.

There are more than 77,000 Japanese citizens reported to be over age 120, and even 884 persons AGED OVER 150 YEARS OF AGE, who are still alive according to government rolls.

While we in the US wouldn't bat an eye if we heard this story coming out of the Chicago area of Cook County, Illinois, given the number of dead people still actively voting in elections there, there are at least 230,000 people in Japan over age 100 who simply cannot be located by any means. This large centenarian population is largely responsible for the very high average life expectancy in Japan (currently listed by the World Bank as 82.6 years, more than four years greater than the US average of 78.4 years (this is including dead voters in Chicago)), as well as any senior citizens under 100 who are actually dead but have not been reported as such on government records.

EPA Silliness

Over the last several years, we have been replacing many of the full-sized pickups we use in our campground business with mini-trucks from Japan.  They are cheaper to insure, cheaper to buy, easy to repair, and get about 60 miles to the gallon.  We typically buy them used in container-loads of six or seven, and we used to get them for less than $10,000 a container -- now they cost almost this much individually.

This year the prices have sky-rocketed, and they have been hard to find.  I finally discovered the reason.  It seems the EPA has halted their importation.  These are trucks that are from an emissions regime (in Japan) harsher than ours and that have three times the gas mileage of the trucks they are replacing.  But apparently the EPA doesn't have rules for them and doesn't know how to categorize them, and anything a bureaucrat doesn't have rules for must be illegal, right?  So now we are forced to go back to full-size pickup truck purchases until the EPA can catch up with the market.

Update: Apparently the EPA is going to review these trucks model by model.  This is so stupid.  They need some kind of class waiver.

So Much For The Tax Pledge

"I can make a firm pledge"¦.no family making less than $250,000 will see any form of tax increase"¦..not any of your taxes"-Barack Obama, September 12, 2008

Oops, well, so much for that, as Obama imposes a 35% tax on Chinese tires, requiring higher prices be paid by the majority of Americans.  This is a broad-based tax aimed at supporting one narrow American industry, as a payoff to the United Steel Workers who have been sad that the UAW has been getting all the political gravy of late.

Suppose the Chinese government is massively subsidizing tire exports -- that they are taking Chinese taxpayer money and directly applying it to tire exports to reduce prices in the US.  What should our response be?  Mine would be:  Thanks, suckers.  If the Chinese really want to tax their people to subsidize lower US consumer prices, why in the world would we want to stop them?

Oh, and remember that Obama pledge to be all lovey-dovey with the rest of the world instead of that nasty confrontational Bush administration?  Well, forget that too:

HONG KONG -- Just two days after the United States slapped Chinese tire imports with hefty tariffs, Beijing has hit back by saying it would launch an anti-dumping investigation into automobile and chicken products from the U.S.

[...]

The "protectionist" policy that seems to have triggered the Chinese tit-for-tat investigation was an order signed on Friday by President Barack Obama that imposes a 35% tariff on tires imported from China on top of the existing import duty of 4%.

Can anyone say, "Smoot-Hawley."  I am sure happy we all learned from the one unequivocal lesson that every economist, left-right-Keynsian-monetarist, took away from the Great Depression -- that starting an international trade war is the best way to exacerbate a recession.  Obama has  done just about the only thing everyone agrees shouldn't be done in response to a major economic downturn.

Update: More good analysis here

Postscript: I wrote this hypothetical post from the Chinese perspective a couple of years ago:  From "Panda Blog:"

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States.  The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Imposing strict capital controls that limit dollar reinvestment to low-yield securities like US government T-bills
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.  Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses.  These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China.  In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much.  They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth.  They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese.  They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending.  They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China!  This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by CIA-controlled American media.  After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa.  And, with nearly a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse.  American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse.  Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

So Why Are We Benchmarking Health Care v. France?

This is awesome, from Carpe Diem:

gdpworld

On a purchasing power parity basis, France, Japan, and Germany would all be the poorest states in the United States, based on per capita GDP.  People on the coasts don't benchmark their education or health care spending against Mississippi, except perhaps to make the case that Mississippi is spending too little.  So why do they benchmark their spending against Germany or France.  Of course we spend more on health care per capita - we spend more than these countries per capita on everything from TV's to cars to movie tickets.

State Science Institute

A number of folks, including myself but more prominently Megan McArdle, have argued that a big problem with nationalized health care schemes is that these plans threaten drug innovation in the US  (which is really the last remaining source of drug innovation in the whole world).

The argument is that nationalization schemes will likely hammer drug prices through price controls down to marginal cost, eliminating any profit motive for expensive drug development.  Further, new drugs will be hampered by having to convince government health care czars that the drug should be allowed under proposed proscriptive, top-down systems of allowed medical procedures.  Risk-adverse beauracrats faced with inevitable budget overruns are unlikely to take the chances with new procedures that the private world takes every day.  (And if you don't believe that budgets will be immediately overrun, look at cash-for clunkers, where 5 months of funds were used up in 5 days -- people may not like the government, but they will take free money and services in near infinite amounts).

Well, I had thought that the response to this argument from health care "reform" supporters would have been something like "private incentives to develop drugs will still exist because of X or Y."   But apparently, they have given up on that argument and jumped all the way to the argument that even without any private drug companies, Dr. Robert Stadler and the State Science Institute will do all the drug development we need.

Megan McArdle responds in depth here.  I think there is a simpler argument.  Look at something like computers or machine tools.  Innovation in these free markets occurs all over the world, and new inventions and products are as likely to come from Korea or Japan or Germany than from the US.  But in the world of pharmaceuticals and new medical devices, a wildly disproportionate share come in the US, the last semi-free health care market in the world.  And even those new products developped in other countries are funded and capitalized based on their profit potential in the US.

China As The New Japan

I am very glad to hear this from someone other than, uh, me:

China bashing during the past decade is reminiscent of the Japan bashing that occurred during the 1980s. It turned out that Japan's substantial export surplus with the US, its extensive accumulation of US Treasury bonds, and its purchases of assets in the US did not hurt the United States, but were for the most part foolish actions on the part of the Japanese government and businesses. I believe that similar conclusions will be reached about the parallel Chinese practices.

I have been saying this for years, that the Chinese trade and exchange rate policies everyone wanted to bash were doing nothing but helping us and hurting the Chinese people.  I wrote a hypothetical post from the Chinese persepective nearly 3 years ago:

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States.  The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Imposing strict capital controls that limit dollar reinvestment to low-yield securities like US government T-bills
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.  Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses.  These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China.  In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much.  They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth.  They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese.  They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending.  They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China!  This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by CIA-controlled American media.  After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa.  And, with nearly a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse.  American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse.  Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

I concluded in another post

Napoleon said to never interrupt an enemy when he was making a mistake.   I don't consider China an enemy, but it just flabbergasts me that the Chinese taxpayers and consumers see fit to subsidize lower prices for our consumers, and we feel the need to stop them.

More here

Additional Thoughts on Letting GM Die

I have gotten a lot of email on my posts about allowing GM to die.  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. No matter what our mutual preferences, GM is not actually going to die.  It will go in to chapter 11 and reorganize, and, as that law intends, will continue to operate through that reorganization.  While Lehman and Enron liquidated, they were really special cases having more to do with financial than operating assets.  In the last 20 years, Texaco, PG&E, Worldcom, Delta, and UAL have all passed through chapter 11, and all operated their businesses through bankruptcy.  In fact, all of Enron's pipelines and other operating assets are running A-OK right now, just under new ownership.  Do you remember all those news stories about massive natural gas shortages because Enron's pipelines all stopped operating when it declared bankruptcy?  Yeah, neither did I.
  2. You are welcome to write me about how I suck because your job at GM (or retirement, or health care, or all of the above) is important to you if that helps you psychologically to manage a terrible and stressful time.  But, to cause me to back off my opinion about GM and the bailout, you need to tell me why your job is more important than someone else's job.  Because, unlike private enterprise, the government does not create wealth, but can only move it around (with a leaky bucket, at that).  GM has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, so having the government invest money to save your job will likely cost >1 job somewhere else.  Just because we don't, and may never know, who that specific person is does not make this an ethical choice. 
  3. I too, all things being equal, value having a healthy auto industry in the US  (which in fact we still have -- it just happens the headquarters of many of the companies that run the plants are over in Japan).  However, if you wish to argue that the bailout is necessary to save a US auto industry, you in fact need to argue that the current set of managers/contracts/systems/performance measures/organization/etc. of GM are better able to manage the employees and assets of GM than a different owner with different managers and approaches.  Because having GM fail does not make the assets or trained people disappear, it merely makes it more likely they will be managed by a different entity.  So all a bailout does is save the GM entity that manages these assets and people.

Why Does The US Appear to Have Higher Infant Mortality?

I am sure you have seen various rankings where the US falls way behind other western nations in terms of infant mortality.  This stat is jumped on by the left as justification for just how cold and heartless America is, and just how enlightened socialized medicine must be.  However, no one seems to bother to check the statistic itself (certainly the media is too incompetent to do so, particularly when it fits their narrative).  Statistics like this that are measured across nations are notoriously unreliable, as individual nations may have different definitions or methods for gathering the data.

And, in fact, this turns out to be the case with infant mortality, a fact I first reported here (related post on medical definitions driving national statistics here).  This week, Mark Perry links to an article further illuminating the issue:

The main
factors affecting early infant survival are birth weight and
prematurity. The way that these factors are reported "” and how such
babies are treated statistically "” tells a different story than what
the numbers reveal.  Low
birth weight infants are not counted against the "live birth"
statistics for many countries reporting low infant mortality rates.

According
to the way statistics are calculated in Canada, Germany, and Austria, a
premature baby weighing less than 500 kg is not considered a living
child.

But
in the U.S., such very low birth weight babies are considered live
births. The mortality rate of such babies "” considered "unsalvageable"
outside of the U.S. and therefore never alive
"” is extraordinarily
high; up to 869 per 1,000 in the first month of life alone. This skews
U.S. infant mortality statistics.Norway
boasts one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. But when
the main determinant of mortality "” weight at birth "” is factored in,
Norway has no better survival rates than the United States....

In the United States, all infants who show signs of life at birth
(take a breath, move voluntarily, have a heartbeat) are considered
alive.

If a child in Hong Kong or Japan is born alive but dies within the
first 24 hours of birth, he or she is reported as a "miscarriage" and
does not affect the country's reported infant mortality rates....

Efforts to salvage these tiny babies reflect this classification. Since
2000, 42 of the world's 52 surviving babies weighing less than 400g
(0.9 lbs.) were born in the United States.

Hmm, so in the US we actually try to save low-birthweight babies rather than label them unsalvageable.  Wow, we sure have a cold and heartless system here.  [disclosure:  My nephew was a very pre-mature, very low-birthweight baby who could have fit in the palm of your hand at birth and survived by the full application of American medical technology.  He is doing great today]

Will Hillary Sue the US Congress?

Hillary apparently wants to sue OPEC for not producing enough oil. If this idea had come in via the constituent mail, Hillary's staffers would probably have laughed themselves silly, but it is an election year, and no bottom has been found below which candidates are unable to keep a straight face while uttering what they know to be nonsense.

But should Hillary be suing OPEC, or the US?  Because if you ranked the world's countries on those that are doing the least to develop the most promising potential oil deposits, the US would be right at the top of that list.  By Hillary's logic, Western Europe and Japan should be suing us.

Nozone

Speaking of Technocrats...

Apparently leading technocrat and Mussolini-style-economic-dictator Robert Reich is at it again, arguing the path to freedom requires more government coercion.  Ronald Bailey reminds us that Reich was the one who advocated the US adopt Japanese MITI-style economic management, just before the American economy took off for 25 years and Japan's spiraled into stagnation.  Now, he is arguing that capitalism is the enemy of democracy:

As Freedom House points out the number of countries that qualify as free rose from just 44 in 1972 to 89 in 2005,
even as capitalism expanded around the globe. It has been hypothesized
that as incomes increase in a country (rise of a middle class), the
demand for democratic governance becomes irresistible. This seems to
have been the pattern in South Korea, Chile, and Taiwan. Will the same
thing happen in China? As a negative leading indicator---whatever Reich
predicts, the opposite occurs-don't be surprised if China becomes a
democracy in the next decade.

Wherein I Answer Lou Dobbs and Suspect He Is A Chinese Agent

It is always dangerous to argue with the insane, but I am actually willing to answer Lou Dobbs question:

And what I can't quite figure out amongst these geniuses who are
so-called free traders is, why do they think that about a 35 percent to
40 percent undervaluation of the Chinese yuan to the dollar is free
trade? Why do they think 25 percent duties in tariffs on American
products entering China is free trade?

I will leave aside the question of how he or anybody else knows the yuan is undervalued by this much.  I will accept his premise on the basis that we know the Chinese government spends money to keep the yuan lower than it might be otherwise.  Here is my answer:

Yes, it is not perfectly free trade.  But we let it continue because the freaking Chinese government, its consumers, and its taxpayers are subsidizing Americans.  The Chinese government is making all of its consumers pay higher prices and higher taxes just so American consumers can have lower prices.  Napoleon advised that one never should interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake -- after all, this same strategy managed to earn Japan a decade and a half long recession.  Our correct response is not tariffs, it is to say, "gee, thanks."  This is for the Chinese people to stop, not our government. 

Why is China doing this?  Because it government is using monetary policy to help out a few favored exporters who have political influence at the expense of all of their consumers and exporters.  And Lou Dobbs wants the US to respond exactly the same way, to punish our consumers to favor some of our favored politically-connected exporters so the Chinese consumers can have lower prices.  Great plan.  Is Lou Dobbs an Chinese agent?

China Continues to Subsidize Lower Prices for Consumers

From today's WSJ ($) online:

Turning aside growing congressional anger over low everyday prices, President George W. Bush's
administration today will reject demands that it formally accuse
Beijing of subsidizing lower prices for U.S. consumers.

With U.S. lawmakers gearing up to punish China for using Chinese funds to subsidize low U.S. consumer prices, Treasury
Secretary Henry Paulson is expected to use a semiannual currency
report, to be released today, to reinforce his calls for Beijing to
allow prices in the U.S. to rise faster....

OK, I confess I fibbed a bit.  The actual article reads:

Turning aside growing congressional anger over the
U.S. trade deficit with China, President George W. Bush's
administration today will reject demands that it formally accuse
Beijing of "manipulating" its currency to give Chinese companies an
edge over American businesses.

With U.S. lawmakers gearing up to punish China for
keeping the yuan artificially weak against the dollar, Treasury
Secretary Henry Paulson is expected to use a semiannual currency
report, to be released today, to reinforce his calls for Beijing to
allow the yuan to rise faster. But Mr. Paulson won't brand China a
currency manipulator despite congressional demands that he do so.

But it means the same thing as my version.  Thanks to Congress for looking after us consumers.  Our Chinese sister publication Panda Blog addressed these issues from the Chinese perspective a while back.  In short, the Chinese are wondering what we are complaining about:

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy
of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus
in manufactured goods with the United States.  The Chinese government
does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Imposing strict capital controls that limit dollar reinvestment to low-yield securities like US government T-bills
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what
    the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these
government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the
expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese
products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for
Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy
of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting
foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted
as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government,
saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1
trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to
promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese
citizens.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports
and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and
eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers
in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers
had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that
Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.
Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously
outdated retail sector that were all protected by government
regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses
they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US,
and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars)
in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession,
from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy
happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions,
seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government
to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and
trade surpluses.  These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they
will achieve nothing for China.  In fact, the only thing that amazes us
more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans
seem to complain about it so much.  They complain about their trade
deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible
wealth.  They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today
to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese.  They
complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing
more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit
spending.  They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than
a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run
a security risk with their current trade deficit with China!  This
claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it
must be the result of a misdirection campaign by CIA-controlled
American media.  After all, the fact that China exports more to the US
than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's
economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American
economy than vice-versa.  And, with nearly a trillion dollars in
foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China
that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American
government, rather than the reverse.  American commentators invent
scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we
could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse.  Mutual Assured
Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of
nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

It's Our Economy, Not Yours, Stupid

Like many libertarians, I lose interest quickly in politics, watching partisans of the Coke party argue why they are so much different than the Pepsi party.  You don't have to watch the whole farce for very long as a neutral observer before you see the same people taking the opposite tack on an issue than they did a few years earlier, only because their guy is in office, so now its more OK than when the other party's guy was doing it.

But I do read a few political blogs from both sides, just to keep abreast of what is going on.  This weekend, both sides managed to irritate me over the same issue.  First, Kevin Drum, from the left, railed on what he called "the GOP economy," complaining that the economy has grown without increasing median wages (note he carefully avoids "total compensation," which has gone up.)  Then Captains Quarters wrote from the right that "The economy continues its growth under the stewardship of the Bush administration."

George Bush does not run the economy.  George Bush does not even make day-to-day decisions that affect the economy.  He has made a few major moves that have economic consequences, with the positive effects of tax cuts probably mostly offset by unrestrained deficit spending, random protectionist acts and new bloated government services.  Bill Clinton, while we have to credit him for NAFTA (see below), was not responsible for the incredible economic expansion of the 90's.  In fact, neither Bill Clinton nor his wife have ever held a job where they produced anything. 

All of which is fine - I am not accusing president's of somehow falling down on the job.  I am merely stating what I thought was obvious.  Wealth is created by the actions and the minds of hundreds of millions of people, to whom the occupant of the White House is largely irrelevant except insofar as the President  substantially increases or reduces the artificial burden of efficiency-sucking government mandates, reporting, and taxes.

I will go into more depth on this in my annual tax day post, but I am increasingly confident of my theory of wealth creation.  Wealth is increased as two things happen:

  • More individuals are more free to (and more likely to) question established beliefs, either scientific (e.g. the earth-centric universe), social (e.g. racial prejudice) or business (e.g. primacy of mainframe computing).
  • More Individuals are more free to act in their own self-interest to pursue the results of their insights and to keep for themselves the proceeds of their efforts.

Since the 1970's, we have seen an explosion in the global economy, which has greatly increased the number of people working on any given economic problem.  For example, instead of just people in Detroit and Germany thinking about how to design and produce cars, we have folks in Japan and South Korea and even China and Brazil questioning the established wisdom from Detroit.  This has resulted not just in better, more affordable cars, but in production and supply chain management techniques that have made nearly every industry you can name more productive. 

Whenever such a change occurs, there are conservative (lower-c) forces that try to halt them.  The Church used its power for a time to resist the heliocentric view of the solar system.  Southern states used Jim Crow laws to resist post Civil War racial and social reforms.  And any number of groups wanted (and still want) to slam the door on the global economy.  Many countries in Europe went down this path.  What has saved the US from the same low-growth fate they have in Europe (and Japan) is that the government, and Bill Clinton in particular, at a critical time resisted the technocratic urge to have the government "do something" about the economic changes flowing from globalization.  Some wanted protectionism, while some wanted a more active hand by the government in "choosing winners" in the economy, like it was perceived that Japan had.  Bill Clinton resisted resisted these voices, most of whom were powerful in his own party, and in fact doubled down on globalization by pushing NAFTA.  For this act of vision, Clinton should be credited, but I still wouldn't call it "his" economy.