Posts tagged ‘trade’

Trade and The World's Most Misunderstood Accounting Identity: Y=C+I+G+X-M (Update)

(Note:  This is an update of this post based on a new set of economically illiterate people in the White House).

Repeat after me:  Y=C+I+G+X-M is an accounting rule.  It does not explain anything about the economy.  It is as useful to telling us anything interesting about the economy as the equation biomass=plants+animals+bacteria tells us anything about the ecosystem.

Apparently our new commerce secretary is totally ignorant of this fact:

[New Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross] has a simple but misguided view of global trade. He believes that good trade policy yields a national trade surplus, while bad deals produce trade deficits—as if every country in the world could run a trade surplus. In an August letter to this newspaper, Mr. Ross wrote, “It’s Econ 101 that GDP equals the sum of domestic economic activity plus ‘net exports,’ i.e., exports minus imports. Therefore, when we run massive and chronic trade deficits, it weakens our economy.”

Who taught him that? Imports are subtracted in GDP calculations to avoid overstating domestic production, not because they make us poorer. Many domestic products wouldn’t exist without foreign components.

Here is his faulty logic.  The GDP (Y) is calculated by adding Consumer spending + Investment by Business + Government spending + eXports and then subtracting iMports.  Because imports are subtracted in the GDP equation, they look to the layman like they shrink the economy.  How do we grow the economy?  Why, let's reduce that number that is subtracted!  But this is wrong.  Totally wrong.   Anything that reduces imports (e.g. a tariff) will likely reduce C+I+G by the same amount.   The M term is there simply to avoid double counting.  It has no economic meaning in this context whatsoever.  I have tried many times to explain this, but let me see if I can work by analogy.

Let's say we wanted an equation to count the amount of clothing we owned.  To make things simple, let's say we are only concerned with the total of Shirts, Pants, and Underwear.   Most of our clothes are in the closet, so we say our clothes are equal to the S+P+U we count in our closet.  But wait, we may have Loaned clothes to other people.  Those are not in our closet but should count in our total of our owned clothing.  So now clothes = S+P+U+L.  But we may also have Borrowed clothes.  Some of those clothes we counted in the closet may be Borrowed and thus not actually ours, so we need to back these out.  Our final equation is clothes owned = S+P+U+L-B.  Look familiar?

Let's go further.  Let's say that we want to increase our number of clothes owned.  We want wardrobe growth!  Well, it looks like those borrowed clothes are a "drag" on our wardrobe size.  If we get rid of the borrowed clothes, that negative B term will get smaller and our wardrobe has to get larger, right?

Wrong.  Remember, like the GDP equation, our wardrobe size equation is just an accounting identity.  The negative B term was put in to account for the fact that some of the clothes we counted in S+P+U in the closet were not actually ours.  If we decrease B, say by returning our friend's shirt, the S term will go down by the exact same amount.  Sure, B goes down, but so do the number of shirts we count in the closet.  So focusing on the B term gets us nowhere.

But it is actually worse than that, because focusing on reducing B makes us worse off.  If negative term B rises, our wardrobe is no larger, but we get the use of all of those other pieces of clothing.  Our owned wardrobe may not be any larger but we get access to more choices and clothing possibilities.  When we drive the negative term B down to zero, our wardrobe is no larger and we are worse off with fewer choices.  Similarly, in the the economy, focusing on reducing imports does not grow the economy, it just serves to make us poorer by reducing our buying choices and increasing the cost of consumer goods as well as manufacturing inputs.

I don't want to say that it's impossible for increases in imports to drag the economy.  For example, if oil prices rise, the imports number measured in dollars will likely rise, and the economy could be worse off as we have to give up buying other things to continue to buy the oil we need.  But, absent major price changes, drops in exports more likely just mirror drops in C+I+G.  If consumers are hurting, they spend less on everything, including imported goods.   At the end of the day, none of these numbers (Mr. Keynes, are you listening?) are independent variables.

Postscript:  Here is another example.  Imagine a company with three divisions, D1, D2, and D3.  How do we compute the company's total revenue?  Well, typically we would add the revenue from the three divisions, so Total Corporate Revenue R = RD1 + RD2 + RD3.  Oh, but there is a problem.  Some of the sales from each of our divisions are to each other.  We only want to measure our true revenue from external sales, so we need to subtract intra-company sales from the total (this is a very typical step in conglomerate accounting).  So total company revenue R = RD1+RD2+RD3-IC, where IC are the total of intra-company sales within the company between divisions.  If you had a new CEO who looked at this accounting, and the CEO's first thought was "if we got rid of all these intra-company sales, surely we would have more revenue, because they are subtracting from total revenue in the revenue equation."  What would you do with this CEO?  If you knew the first thing about corporate accounting, you would fire him or her immediately for being a moron.  Just because the IC term is negative in the accounting equation does not mean that intra-company sales are a drag on revenues.  Eliminating intra-comapny sales would likely reduce revenues and profits as company insiders are forced to find new, less trusted, and more expensive sources for their purchases than buying internally.

Why Aren't The Chinese Ticked Off About Subsidizing American Consumers? And Why Aren't We Happy About It?

Ten years ago, we published an editorial from our Chinese sister publication Panda Blog.  Though some of the details of their government's financial actions have changed since then, the gist of it is still correct -- the Chinese government still engages in actions that they call "export promotion" and President Trump calls "currency manipulation".  So I think this editorial from the perspective of the Chinese consumer is still relevant:

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.

Congratulations #DeleteUber on Weakening an Important Source of Restraint on Trump

A couple weeks ago I was having dinner with a couple of guys who fear and despise Trump.  I told them that all the marches in the streets were not going to affect Trump's behavior one bit, though it will affect the behavior of the Congress when (and if, given the new Imperial presidency, copyright Bush and Obama) they are called on to ratify some of Trump's actions.  I told them that the biggest check on Trump, at least in the near term on issues like immigration, was going to be American corporations.  As much as the Left may not like corporations, businesses need trade and immigration and free international travel to function in the global economy and they are not going to be happy about all of Trump's planned restrictions (you could see echoes of that last night in a number of the Superbowl commercials).

So of course the Left gears up a #DeleteUber campaign because Uber didn't participate in a taxi strike at JFK protesting Trump's immigration order.  Essentially, protesters who are mad at Trump for restricting travel are mad at Uber for, uh, not restricting travel.  In the end, all the #DeleteUber folks did was force the Uber CEO to quit Trump's advisory counsel.  Congratulations Left, you managed to remove a likely voice of reason from inside the White House.

I would happily join up with the Left in opposition to a lot of Trump's actions if I wasn't so absolutely horrified at their tactics.  There is no reason, no thoughtfulness at all.  Even the media participates in this dumbing down by simply refusing to making issues clear (e.g. continuing to call the 90-day visa timeout from 7 countries a "muslim ban").  And the first person from the Left who I hear criticize the anti-free-speech violence at Berkeley will be the first.

Update:  97 tech firms team up against Trump's immigration ban.  The problem with this approach is that I am not sure the "immigration ban", which is in fact a 90-day pause in issuing visas to folks from 7 countries, is actually illegal under current law and precedent.   Obama did something similar with Iraq at one point.   But I am happy to see them taking a shot at it -- in my mind a single person should not have this much power.  By the way, Amazon and Tesla did not sign, in part because their leaders still sit on Trump's advisory board.  The latter strikes me as a reasonable strategy, but I wonder how long the Left will allow them to remain inside the tent.

 

Trade and Consumer Advocacy, Part 2

Yesterday, I suggested we needed a new, real consumer advocacy organization to replace the economically ignorant Nader-led PIRG organizations.  The reason is that it is time that consumers banded together and resisted Trump's protectionism, since such protection generally protects a few politically favored unions and corporations while raising prices and reducing choice for all consumers.

A couple of hours after I posted that, the absolutely indispensable Mark Perry brings us a great post on academic research about how protectionist actions nearly always cost consumers more than they help producers.

The empirical evidence above helps us to understand a very important economic lesson about international trade, call it “protectionist math” — and that mathematical reality is that the costs of protectionism imposed on American consumers in the form of higher prices and a reduction in trade will always be greater than the benefits generated for the protected industries and the workers in those industries. And here’s another part of that “protectionist math” that helps us answer the question: Sure, we can save US jobs with protectionist trade policies, but how much does it cost consumers for every job saved with protectionist trade policy, and is that cost worth it? Economic analysis and the empirical evidence presented above suggest that it’s very, very expensive to save US jobs with protectionism — more than half-a-million dollars on average per year per job in 2016 dollars (see chart above). If Trump enacts protectionist policies that save $50,000 per year US factory jobs but at a cost to consumer of $500,000 annually for each job saved, that’s a surefire formula to “Make America Expensive and Poor Again,” not “great again.”

I won't reprint his chart, but he has detailed results form a number of academic studies in different industries that back this statement up.

My point about needing a new consumer advocacy group was a little tongue in cheek, but here is Perry quoting from a study at the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis a number of years ago (back during the last wave of protectionism, which was based on Japan rather than China bashing).

The primary reason for these costly protectionist policies relies on a public choice argument. The desire to influence trade policy arises from the fact that trade policy changes benefit some groups, while harming others. Consumers are harmed by protectionist legislation; however, ignorance, small individual costs, and the high costs of organizing consumers prevent the consumers from being an effective force. On the other hand, workers and other resource owners in an industry are more likely to be effective politically because of their relative ease of organizing and their individually large and easy-to-identify benefits. Politicians interested in re-election will most likely respond to the demands for protectionist legislation of such an interest group.

Does The Left Know How To Make An Argument Not Based On Racism? The Trouble With the Left's Critique of Trump

As I predicted in my letter to the Princeton University President last year, two decades of living in university monocultures and political echo chambers, combined with a one-track focus on social justice, seems to have left the political Left with no ability to engage in rational opposition politics.

The Golden Globe Awards were a magnificent example.  I presume that many of these actors are reasonably intelligent people.  And they are obviously upset and worried about Donald Trump's election to President.  But they can't express anything beyond their fear and loathing.  They can't articulate what specifically worries them, and when they do articulate something specific - e.g "this may be the last Golden Globes Awards" - it is silly and illogical.

Perhaps worse, these critiques of Trump are, IMO, focusing on all the wrong things and sucking the oxygen out of the room for more relevant criticism.  The Hollywood types all seemed terrified that they and their industry are going to somehow fall victims to government authoritarianism.  At some level I guess this makes sense -- when the Left was in power, they used their power to hammer industries they did not like (eg energy) and thus expect that the Right will do the same once they are in power.  But Trump is a New York social liberal who is a part of the entertainment industry.   While I confess that one of the problems with Trump is that he is wildly unpredictable, Hollywood is an unlikely target, at least until they just  went on TV and begged to be one.

An even better example of focusing on all the wrong problems is the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions.  If you read pretty much any of the media, you will be left with the impression that the main issue with Sessions is whether he is a racist, or at least whether he is sufficiently sensitive to race issues.  But this is a complete diversion of attention from Sessions' true issues.  I am not sure what is in his heart on race, but his track record on race seems to be pretty clean.  His problems are in other directions -- he is an aggressive drug warrior, a fan of asset forfeiture, and a proponent of Federal over local power.  As just one example of problems we may face with an AG Sessions, states that have legalized marijuana may find the Feds pursuing drug enforcement actions on Federal marijuana charges.

Why haven't we heard any of these concerns?  Because the freaking Left is no longer capable of making any public argument that is not based on race or gender.  Or more accurately, the folks on the Left who see every single issue as a race and gender issue are getting all the air time and taking it away from more important (in this case) issues.    The SJW's are going to scream race, race, race at the Sessions nomination, and since there does not seem to be any smoking gun there, they are going to fail.  And Sessions will be confirmed without any of his real illiberal issues coming out in the public discussion about him.

I have said this before about Left and Right and their different approaches to politics.  The Left is great at getting attention on an issue.  Think of BLM and their protests and disruption tactics -- they had everyone's attention.  But they went nowhere on policy.  I challenge you to list the 5 or 10 policy goals of BLM (they actually had a good set once, but abandoned them).  The Left is great at expressing anger and dismay and frustration and outrage, but terrible about thoughtfully taking steps to fix it.  The Right on the other hand is great at working (plodding, really) in the background on policy issues, often at the local level.  ALEC is a great example, building a body of model legislation, working in groups around the country to try to implement these models.  But they absolutely suck at generating emotion and excitement around key issues (except maybe for wars and in abortion protests).  The only example I can really think of is the Tea Party, and (despite how the media tried to portray it) the Tea Party was extraordinarily well-behaved and moderate when compared to protest movements on the Left.

Trump has an enormous number of problems in his policy goals, not the least of which is his wealth-destroying, job-destroying ideas on trade nationalism.   But all we get on trade are a few lone voices who have the patience to keep refuting the same bad arguments (thanks Don Boudreaux and Mark Perry) and instead we get a women's march to protest the Republican who, among the last season's Presidential candidates, has historically been the furthest to the Left on women's issues.    It is going to be a long four years, even longer if the Left can't figure out how to mount a reasonable opposition.

Postscript:  All of this is without even mentioning how the Left's over-the-top disruption tactics seem to just feed Trump's energy.  At some point, Hercules figured out that cutting heads off the hydra was only making things worse and switched tactics.  If only I could be so confident about the Left.

Trump Silver Lining: Liberals Are Now Defending Trade Deficits

Thanks to Trump, it appears that some of the Left have discovered economic reality and are defending trade and suddenly seem less unsettled by trade deficits.  Here is Kevin Drum with one in a series trying to downplay panic over trade deficits, in this case with Mexico.    Here are some of my recent thoughts on the trade deficit.

International trade is such an obvious benefit to the country that it is simply incredible that we are, hundreds of years after Adam Smith and Ricardo and Bastiat, still trying to explain and defend it against ignorance.  It's like we have to constantly battle recurrences of the phlogiston theory of combustion.

In Defense of Profits -- Why They Are At Least As Moral as Wages

Quick background:  my company privately operates public parks, making our money solely from the entry fees voluntarily paid by visitors and campers.  We don't get paid a single dollar of tax money.

A major partner of ours is the US Forest Service (USFS), which actually operates more recreation sites than any other agency in the world (the National Park Service has a higher profile and the Corps of Engineers has more visitors, but the USFS is the most ubiquitous).  Despite the USFS being an early pioneer of using private companies to reduce the operating costs of parks and campgrounds, the USFS still has a large number of employees opposed to what we do.  The most typical statement I hear from USFS employees that summarizes this opposition -- and it is quite common to hear it -- is that "It is wrong to make a profit on public lands."

It would be hard to understate the passion with which certain USFS employees hold to this belief.   I discovered, entirely accidentally through a FOIA request my trade group had submitted to the USFS, that a Forest Supervisor in California (a fairly senior person in the USFS management structure) whom I have never met or even had a conversation with circulated emails through the agency about how evil he thought I was.

This general distaste for profit, which is seen as "dirty" in contrast to wages which are relatively "clean" (at least up to some number beyond which they are dirty again), is not limited to the USFS or even to government agencies in general, but permeates much of the public.  As a result, I thought I would describe a conversation I had with a USFS manager (actually this is the merger of two conversations).  The conversation below had been going on for a while discussing technical topics, and we will pick it up when the District Ranger makes the statement highlighted above (a District Ranger is the lowest level line officer in the USFS, responsible in some cases for the land management functions of an area the size of a county.  I have cleaned up the text (I am sure the sentences would not be as well-formed if I had a transcript) but I think this captures the gist of it:

Ranger:  I think it's wrong that you make a profit on public lands

Me:  So you work for free?

Ranger:  Huh?

Me:  If you think it's wrong to make money on public lands, I assume you must volunteer, else you too would be making money on public lands

Ranger:  No, of course I get paid.

Me:  Well, I know what I make for profit in your District, and I have a good guess what your salary probably is, and I can assure you that you make at least twice as much as me on these public lands.

Ranger:  But that is totally different.

Me:  How?

At this point I need to help the Ranger out.  He struggled to put his thoughts on this into words.  I will summarize it in the nicest possible way by saying he thought that while his wage was honorable, my profit was dishonorable, or perhaps more accurately, that his wage paid by the government was consistent with the spirit of the public lands whereas my profit was not consistent

Me:  I'm not sure why.  My profit is similar to your wage in that it is the way I get paid for my effort on this land -- efforts that are generally entirely in harmony with yours as we are both trying to serve visitors and protect the natural resources here.    But unlike your wage, my profit is also a return on the investment I have made.  Every truck, uniform, and tool we use comes out of my profit, whereas you get all the tools you need paid for by your employer above and beyond your salary.  Further, your salary is virtually guaranteed to you, short of some staggering malfeasance.  Even if you do a bad job you likely would just get shunted to a less interesting staff position at the same salary, rather than fired.   On the other hand if I do a bad job, or if one of my employees slips up, or even if some absolutely random occurrence entirely outside my control occurs (like, say, a flood that closes our operations) my profit can completely evaporate, or even turn into a loss.  So like you, I get paid for my efforts here on public lands, but I have to take risk and make investments that aren't required of you.  So what about that makes my profit less honorable than your wage?

Ranger:  Working on public lands should be a public service, not for profit

Me:  Well, I think you are starting to make the argument again that you should be volunteering and not taking a salary.  But leaving that aside, why is profit inconsistent with service to the public?  My company serves over 2 million visitors a year, and 99.9% give us the highest marks for our service.  And for the few that don't, and complain about a bad experience, every one of those complaints comes to my desk and I personally investigate them.  Do you do the same?

Why do I make such an effort?  Part of it is pride, but part is because I understand that my margins are so narrow, if even 5% of those visitors don't come back next year -- because they had a bad time or they saw a bad review online -- I will make no money.  Those 2 million people vote with their feet every year on whether they think I am adequately serving the public, and their votes directly affect how much money I make.  Do you have that sort of accountability for your public service?

Postscript:  Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the government ranger did not bring up what I would consider the most hard-hitting challenge:  How do we know your profits are not just the rents from a corrupt, cronyist government contracting process.  Two things let me sleep well at night on this question.  The first is that I know what lobbying I do and political connections I have (zero on both) so I am fully confident I can't be benefiting from cronyism in the competitive bid process for these concession contracts.  Of course, you don't know that and if our positions were reversed, I am pretty sure I would be skeptical of you.

So the other fact I have in my favor, which is provable to all, is that the recreation areas we operate are run with far lower costs and a demonstrably higher level of service than the vast majority of recreation areas run by the government itself.  So while I can't prove I didn't pull some insider connections to get the work, I can prove the public is far better off with the operation of these parks in private hands.

Why Are We Making It So Hard For the Chinese to Provide Us With Lower-Cost Aluminum?

This WSJ article's hook is a huge cache of raw aluminum photographed in the Mexican desert.  American aluminum manufacturers claim that this is Chinese aluminum being illegally transshipped through Mexico to get a lower tariff rate.

The U.S. Commerce Department says it is investigating the Mexican aluminum’s origin as part of a slew of trade complaints by the U.S. metals industry against China, many of which include allegations of transshipping.

China’s booming industrial production has reordered global markets, few more dramatically than aluminum. Fueled by access to inexpensive electricity and tax breaks, Chinese aluminum output doubled between 2010 and 2015. With local demand slowing,more of it was sent to the U.S., which was importing 40% of its aluminum by 2015—up from only 14% in 2010.

By the end of 2016, only five aluminum smelters will be operating in the U.S., down from 23 in 2000.

Alcoa Inc., the largest American aluminum maker, is splitting in two, isolating its profitable parts-making units from its troubled raw-aluminum operations. Alcoa Chief Executive Klaus Kleinfeld last year said illegitimate Chinese exports were “the major driver” of lower aluminum prices.

I suppose to an incumbent who has convinced himself that he has a God-given right to his historic market share, new sources of competition are always "illegitimate."  But through the whole article I kept asking myself, why are we forcing these folks in China to jump through so many hoops just to bring us lower-cost aluminum?  Given how fundamental aluminum is to almost every manufactured product today, we should be welcoming them as heroes, not forcing them to play silly games in the Mexican desert just to deliver their product at the price they want to sell it for.

It turns out that all this government effort to "protect" us from lower cost aluminum is to support an American aluminum industry that is tiny, maybe 2% of world production.

p1-by551b_china_16u_20160908113905

The industry would argue that the lower prices of Chinese imports are "illegitimate" in part because the sales price in the US is subsidized by Chinese taxpayers.  To which I answer, "so what?"  Or actually, to which I answer, "yay!"  If another country's taxpayers want to pay higher taxes so that they can provide valuable raw materials to US industry at lower prices, why in the heck would we want to stop them?

China Doesn't Kill American Jobs, Politicians Do

I am simply exhausted with the notion that seems to have taken over both political parties that trade with China is somehow the source of US economic woes.

Remember that voluntary trade can't happen unless both parties are benefiting from each trade.  Remember the masses of academic evidence that the (largely hard to see) benefits of trade in terms of lower costs and more choice tend to be greater than the (easier to see) job losses in a few trade-affected industries.  But even if none of that is compelling to you, consider that our trade deficit with China is just 2% of GDP.  It's almost a rounding error.

If politicians want to know why lower-skilled laborers struggle to find employment, they need to look past imports from China and Mexican immigration and look at their own policies that are making it more and more expensive for businesses to hire people in this country.   I have written about this many times before, but some of the most prominent include:

  • minimum wage laws, rising to $15 an hour in many parts of the country, and increasingly draconian overtime rules, both of which substantially raise the cost of hiring someone.
  • minimum benefit laws, including expensive health care requirements in Obamacare and a myriad of other state-level requirements such as mandatory paid sick leave or family leave
  • payroll taxes that act as sales taxes on labor  -- we understand that cigarette taxes are supposed to reduce cigarette purchases but don't understand that payroll taxes reduce purchases of labor?
  • employment regulations, such as chair laws and break laws in California, that make employing people more expensive and risky
  • employer liability laws, that make employers financially responsible for any knuckleheaded thing their employees do, even when these actions violate company policy (e.g. making racist or sexist statements)**
  • laws that make hiring far more risk, including those that limit the ability to do due diligence on potential employees (e.g. ban the box) and those that limit the ability of employers to fire poor performing employees.

And this is just employment law -- we could go on all day with regulations that make life difficult for lower income workers, such as the numerous laws that restrict the housing stock and drive up housing prices and rents for these same folks who are struggling to find a job.

Let's say you live in California.  Who has killed more jobs in your state -- China or the California legislature?  The answer is no contest.   The California legislature wins the job destruction race in a landslide.   While California's high-tech community enjoys a symbiotic relationship with China that has created immense wealth, the California legislature works overtime to make sure low-skilled workers in the state don't benefit.

 

**Postscript:  Of all the factors here, I won't say that this is the largest but I think it is the most underrated and least discussed.  But think about it.  If you are going to be personally financially libel for ignorant, insensitive, or uncouth remarks made by your employees, even when you have explicitly banned such behavior in company rules and don't personally tolerate it, how likely are you going to be to hire a high school dropout without a good work history to interact with customers?

Thanks to Arnold Kling, I Sort of Understood Trump's Speech Last Night

My personal reaction was that Trump's speech was horrifying, a dystopian vision that bears no relationship to what is actually going on in this country (e.g. violent crime continues to fall, trade continues to make us wealthier, immigrants continue to make productive contributions, etc).  Peter Suderman has more in case you missed it.

But in Arnold Kling's 3-axis model of politics, the speech made perfect sense.   Trump has decided he is going to run hard on the civilization-barbarism axis.  The barbarians are at the gates, and his opponents are either too weak to deal with them or are actually in league with the barbarians.  He is the strong leader who will turn them back and make everyone safe again.  We're not going to trade with the barbarians, we are not going to treat with them, and we are not going to waste civil rights on them.  Ugh.  Trump is working hard to make me feel the victim, but I don't accept victim status.

I am not sure if this is marginally better or worse than what we are going to get at the Democratic Convention, where we will get four days of hearing that I personally am the bad guy and source of all misery in the world and the person that needs to be regulated harder and looted more furiously.   I almost prefer the Democratic approach, because at least evil is being done against me rather than in my name.

If I Were President, On The Day After Vote for Brexit...

I would propose a free-trade agreement with the UK.    No loss of sovereignty, no stupid EU regulations and bureaucrats, no restrictions on what can be called "sausage" -- just trade.  I would offer a similar deal to anyone else who wanted to leave.

Actually, when Obama visited, I would have been tempted to offer it to Britain at that time.  Why was the US President so hell-bent on encouraging closer ties between Britain and Germany when he should have been working to improve the relationship between the UK and the US.

I will admit that I am not thrilled with the anti-immigration tone of the Brexit vote, but the EU is a package deal, and there is a lot of bad with the good in the package.  Here is a good list of reasons to vote for Brexit (hat tip maggies farm)

2016 Presidential Election: Battle of the Crony Capitalists

I am not sure that many politicians are good on this score, but Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are likely as bad as it gets on crony capitalism.  Forget their policy positions, which are steeped in government interventionism in the economy, but just look at their personal careers.  Each have a long history of taking advantage of political power to enrich themselves and their business associates.  I am not sure what Cruz meant when he said "New York values", but both Trump and Clinton are steeped in the New York political economy, where one builds a fortune through political connections rather than entrepreneurial vigor.   Want to build a new parking lot next to your casino or start up a new energy firm -- you don't bother with private investors or arms length transactions, you go to the government.

With that in mind, I particularly liked Don Buudreaux's quote of the day:

First, we labor under a ubiquitous threat of being shackled by crony capitalists.  [Adam] Smith wondered how internally stable a free market could be in the face of a tendency for its political infrastructure to decay into crony capitalism.  (The phrase “crony capitalism” is not Smith’s.  I use it to refer to various of Smith’s targets: mercantilists who lobby for tariffs and other trade barriers, monopolists who pay kings for a license to be free from competition altogether, and so on.)  Partnerships between big business and big government lead to big subsidies, monopolistic licensing practices, and tariffs.  These ways of compromising freedom have been and always will be touted as protecting the middle class, but their true purpose is (and almost always will be) to transfer wealth and power from ordinary citizens to well-connected elites

The Trade Deficit is Not A Debt

If you search Coyoteblog for the title of this post, you will see a number of others with the same title.  It seems to be a theme we keep having to come back to.  Here is one example of where I tried to explain why the trade deficit is not a debt.

Take the Chinese for example.  One thing that people often miss is that the Chinese buy a LOT more American stuff than the trade numbers portray.  The numbers in the balance of trade accounts include only products the Chinese buy from the US and then take back to China to consume there.  But the Chinese like to buy American stuff and consume it here, in the US.  They buy land and materials to build factories and trade offices.  They buy houses in California.  They buy our government bonds.  None of this stuff shows up in the trade numbers.  Is it somehow worse that the Chinese wish to consume their American products in America?  No.  How could it be.  In fact, its a compliment.  They know that our country is, long-term, a safer and more reliable place to own and hold on to things of value than their own country.

Dollars paid to a Chinese manufacturer have to get recycled to the US -- they don't just build up in a pile.   If I am a construction contractor in LA and build that manufacturer a new office or a local home and get paid with those recycled dollars, I am effectively exporting to the Chinese, only the goods and services I sold them never leave the country and so don't show up in the trade numbers.  So what does this mean?   In my mind, it means that the trade deficit number is a stupid metric to obsess over.

Another way I think about it is to observe that the US is winning the battle of stuff.   Money as money itself does not improve my well-being -- only the stuff (goods and services) I can purchase with it can do so.   So i t turns out that other countries ship far more stuff to the US than we ship out. And then these folks in other countries take the money they earn from this trade and buy more stuff in the US and keep keep that stuff here!

I am reminded of all this because several other folks are taking a swing at trying to make this point to the economically illiterate.   Don Boudreaux does so here, and Dan Ikensan here.  And here is Walter Williams as well.

Thank God We Have Unionized Government Workers and Not Some Damn Private Company

The TSA, which apparently stands for Theater of Security Absurdity, apparently is completely useless:

According to a report based on an internal investigation, "red teams" with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General were able to get banned items through the screening process in 67 out of 70 tests it conducted across the nation.

The test results were first reported by ABC News, and government officials confirmed them to CNN. Mark Hatfield, acting deputy director, will take over for Melvin Carraway until a new acting administrator is appointed. It was not immediately clear Tuesday where Carraway would be reassigned.

Fortunately, the TSA has been successful in creating accountability-free sinecures with stupendous pension and benefit plans for thousands of people who apparently learned the security trade from Sargent Schultz.

My New Worst Business Ever: YP

YP is the modern name for what used to be the Yellow Pages.  Obviously, yellow pages are a dying business.  Ten years ago the Phoenix Yellow Pages had to be broken up into two books, each a couple inches think.  I happened to see one the other day, and it was the size of a short novel.  They tried to move to the web, but who goes to Yp.com (vs. google or Yelp) to find a business?

Even in the glory days of yellow pages, it was always hard to cancel their service.  If you did not tell them by like August, they would start billing you for the next year and sic a collection agency on you if you disputed it.

However, it appears that now that YP is a dying business, and knows that each lost customer will likely never be replaced, it has turned into the Hotel California.

In 2013, I left a location in Ventura County.   We had advertised in the Yellow Pages for years (back when it made sense) and had never been able to cancel it in time -- by the time we remembered it each year it had already auto renewed.   Soon after we left, I notified them that we needed to cancel.  At the time, I tried to negotiate a reduction in the 2014 charges but figured I probably would have to pay them, which I did.

Then, in 2015 I started getting bills.  I called each month patiently explaining and sending letters that we had already cancelled.  They would say that they had no record of my ever calling, but they swore they would mark the account as closed and that it would be fixed.  Then the next month it would all repeat -- a bad customer service Groundhog Day.

Finally this week I started getting legal threats and collection agency notices that I owe $499 for 2015 and that my life would be left in ruins with the ground salted if I did not pay immediately.  So I called today and AGAIN they had no record of my cancelling -- in fact, it was on a path to renew again for 2016.

Look, I am the first to tell folks to never chalk up to conspiracy what can as easily be explained by mass incompetence.  But at some point one has to suspect there is fraud going on here to retain customers as long as possible for a dying service.

So here is what I am left with -- I found someone in their organization who may be willing to settle my non-debt for non-services for a couple of hundred.  I told them this was absurd, since I did not owe it, but that I would pay a couple hundred dollars if they would give me a letter that said the account is closed and fully settled.  From the outside, this may seem a bad trade.  But I have enough lawyers in my life and hiring lawyers would be the only way to solve this any other way.  And besides, $200 is cheap compared to the thousands of dollars of my personal time I have spent farting with this.

Update 9/27/15:  God, this is Groundhog Day!  YP said that I should send a certified letter to such and such address to make absolutely sure that my account was cancelled.  I sent it to that exact address, braving a 30-minute line at the post office to do so.   So of course, the letter just came back undeliverable.  I have held off saying this, but these guys are total scam artists.  They seem to have no intention of ever letting me leave.

Memo to Vox: You Know How This Prosperity Was Achieved? We Let it Happen.

Vox shares what is perhaps the greatest achievement in human history, the continuing disappearance of absolute poverty:

roser_poverty_shares

 

Readers of this blog will likely  have seen this before (though it may well be new to Vox readers).  Here is the amazing thing about the Vox article:  It never once mentions capitalism, trade, economic freedom, or any synonym.  Here is a sampling of the tone of the accompanying article:

There's still much work to be done: 14.4 percent of the world amounts to 1 billion people who still need to be lifted out of extreme poverty. And making sure everyone's making at least $1.25 a day isn't the end of the fight either. The world's median income is still only $3 to $4 a day. By comparison, the poverty line in the US for a family of four is $16.61 per person per day. Once under-$1.25-a-day poverty is eradicated, the world needs to set about eradicating under-$15-a-day poverty, which will be a substantially harder task.

Vox is treating this like it is the result of some top-down effort, using the same language one might use to describe the eradication of Yellow Fever in Panama.  As if this resulted (and as if future progress depended on) some all-hands-on-deck technocratic government program.

No one "set about" eradicating poverty.  It happened because governments, at least to some extent, got out of the way and didn't stop it.  China is a great example.  Mao "set about" trying to eliminate poverty using many of the approaches likely favored by the Vox staff, and killed a few tens of millions of people in the process.

Here is my theory of the world's accelerating wealth formation that I have written on a number of times before.  This chart largely results from:

  • There was a philosophical and intellectual change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns wentfrom being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in vogue. In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone, were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established beliefs and appeals to authority.
  • There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship. Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one. By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth. Whereas before, perhaps 1% or
    less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom.

So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using their minds more freely.

China Slashes Costs for American Consumers

My headline is probably the most accurate description of how China's devaluation of the yuan yesterday affects this country.  But I bet you will not see it portrayed that way in any other media.  What you are going to see, particularly as the Presidential election races heat up, are multiple calls to bash China in some way to punish it for being so generous to American consumers.  Why?  Because the devaluation of the yuan will negatively affect the bottom line of a few export sensitive companies.  And if we have learned anything from the Ex-Im battle, things that GE and Boeing like or hate are much more likely to affect policy than things that benefit 300 million consumers.  Make no mistake, protectionist measures are the worst sort of cronyism, benefiting a few companies and workers and hurting everyone else (look up concentrated benefits, dispersed costs).

By the way, aren't the worldwide competitive devaluation sweepstakes amazing?  If everyone is doing it, then devaluations have no substantive effect on trade (except to perhaps decrease its magnitude in total), which just adds to the utter pointlessness of the game.  And it is hilarious to me to see US elected officials criticizing China for "manipulating" its currency, as if the US Fed hasn't added several trillion dollars to its balance sheet over the last few years in a heroic attempt to manipulate the value (downwards) of our own currency.

Dispatches from the Crony State

From the Daily Beast

For some wealthy donors, it doesn’t matter who takes the White House in 2016—as long as the president’s name is Clinton or Bush.

More than 60 ultra-rich Americans have contributed to both Jeb Bush’s and Hillary Clinton’s federal campaigns, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by Vocativ and The Daily Beast. Seventeen of those contributors have gone one step further and opened their wallets to fund both Bush’s and Clinton’s 2016 ambitions.

After all, why support just Hillary Clinton or just Jeb Bush when you can hedge your bets and donate to both? This seems to be the thinking of a group of powerful men and women—racetrack owners, bankers, media barons, chicken magnates, hedge funders (and their spouses). Some of them have net worths that can eclipse the GDPs of small countries.

Ideology, policy prescriptions, legislative plans -- nothing matters except influence.  This will always happen as long as we give politicians so much power.  Its why the Coke and Pepsi party look so similar today.   At least a few people are noticing:

Is there a single person alive who believes that corporations, trade associations, NGOs, unions, and the like pay the Clintons enormous sums for speeches because they believe their members actually want to hear the Clintons say the same tedious talking points they have been spewing for years? If that were the only value received no profit-minded enterprise would pay the Clintons these vast fees because they would earn, well, a shitty rate of return.

No, the Clintons are not paid to speak. Businesses and other interest groups pay them for the favor of access at a crucial moment or a thumb on the scale in the future, perhaps when it is time to renew the Ex-Im Bank or at a thousand other occasions when a nod might divert millions of dollars from average people in to the pockets of the crony capitalists. The speaking is just a ragged fig leaf, mostly to allow their allies in the media to say they “earned” the money for “speaking,” which is, after all, hard work.

We have such people as the Clintons (and the tens of thousands of smaller bore looters who have turned the counties around Washington, D.C. in to the richest in the country) because they and their ilk in both parties have transformed the federal government of the United States in to a vast favors factory, an invidious place that not only picks winners and losers and decides the economic fates of millions of people, but which has persuaded itself that this is all quite noble. Instead, the opposite is true: This entire class of people, of which the Clintons are a most ugly apotheosis, are destroying the country while claiming it is all in the “public service.” It is disgusting. We need to say that, at least, out loud. . . .

Tear down the aristocracy of pull. This may be our last chance.

Dodd-Frank a Disaster for the Poorest People in Africa

Yeah, that headline seems a bit odd -- Dodd-Frank is about banking, right?  Well, apparently buried within Dodd-Frank are conflict minerals rules which I suppose were spurred by the efforts of a few dim-bulb celebrities who have a knack for latching onto poorly thought out "solutions" for Africa that tend to have staggering unintended consequences.

In this case, the logic was that minerals sales to western companies were  propping up dangerous warlords and militias, particularly in the Congo.  The law imposed huge penalties on American companies that did not purge their supply chain eight, ten, twelve steps deep of any suspected bad actors in the mineral world.

The problem for US companies is that this imposes a ton of cost, and is very hard to do.  So hard that the US government has not been able to successfully differentiate conflict from non-conflict suppliers.   However, as we learned on issues like cybersecurity, the US Government is still more than willing to impose enormous penalties on private businesses for failing at tasks the government can't even do itself.  So companies play it safe and don't buy from any source anywhere near places like Congo, even avoiding neighboring countries that have no such conflict issues.

Because what Progressive supporters forgot in patting themselves on the back for their sensitivity in passing such laws is that minerals extraction and related labor is about the only source of income for citizens of these countries, which are among the poorest in the world.  We may cut have off some of the money flowing to warlords (though not much as they turn out to do pretty well in the new bootlegging environment), but we are cutting off all the money that went to the struggling population.   Further, by driving the trade underground, it becomes impossible to impose event he most basic rules on the trade.   Dodd-Frank turned the mineral trade in these countries into the cocaine trade.

Via Overlawyered, from the CEI

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act increased violence in the Congo by 143 percent (and looting by 291 percent) through its “conflict minerals” rule, which has backfired on its intended beneficiaries. So concludes a new study by Dominic Parker of the University of Wisconsin and Bryan Vadheim of the London School of Economics.

As we noted earlier, Dodd-Frank conflict minerals regulations have also caused starvation in the Congo, harmed U.S. businesses, and resulted in increased smuggling—even as they punish peaceful neighboring countries in Africa just for being near the Congo, whose civil wars have killed millions over the last 20 years. They have inflicted great harm on a country that was just beginning to recover from years of mass killing and had the world’s lowest per capita income. The new study is consistent with a 2013 paper by St. Thomas University law professor Marcia Narine that criticized the conflict minerals rule for its dire consequences for the Congolese people.

To his credit, David Aronson was on this four years ago:

For locals, however, the law has been a catastrophe. In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.

...

Meanwhile, the law is benefiting some of the very people it was meant to single out. The chief beneficiary is Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is nicknamed The Terminator and is sought by the International Criminal Court. Ostensibly a member of the Congolese Army, he is in fact a freelance killer with his own ethnic Tutsi militia, which provides “security” to traders smuggling minerals across the border to neighboring Rwanda.

...

The people of eastern Congo agree that it would be beneficial to bring greater clarity and transparency to the mineral trade. A variety of local and international initiatives to do so were under way when the embargo hit. Those efforts may now become a casualty of the Dodd-Frank law.

Globalization and Start-Ups

In a comment on this article about declining startup activity and the growing average size of businesses, a commenter wrote:

The high foreign trade deficit is also a barrier to the formation of small new companies. The annual trade deficit of the US is greater than the rate of GDP growth, which explains a lot of things. Probably more companies are being destroyed than created in the US. Legislate and reverse the foreign trade deficit and there will be a massive surge in small companies.

I wrote in return

As for wolf-dogs comment on the trade deficit, I think this is totally wrong. Most of the trade imbalance is with stuff like cars and steel which are unlikely startup businesses. The easy availability of Asian manufacturing sources for nearly anything you want to make or can dream up facilitates startups and entrepreneurship. My gut feel, just seeing what entrepreneurs around me are doing but not from any hard data, is that globalization and easy international sourcing is a net positive for small business formation.

I have never seen any data on this though.  Thoughts?

Why Greek History Reminds Me of California and Illinois

From the WSJ, an article on how politicians who tried to point out the unsustainability of Greek finances years ago where not only ignored, but villified and marginalized.  Sort of like in places like California and Illinois.

In the past quarter century, Greece has had a handful of reformist politicians who foresaw the problems that are now threatening the nation with bankruptcy.

Their reform proposals were fought by their colleagues in parliament and savaged by the media and labor unions. They invariably found themselves sidelined....

Tassos Giannitsis is no stranger to this kind of war: His tenure as labor minister was more short lived, and the battles against him even more visceral. Mr. Giannitsis in 2001, again in the Pasok government led by Mr. Simitis, put forward a comprehensive proposal to reform the pension system.

Trade unions, opposition parties and Pasok itself unleashed menace on Mr. Giannitsis.

“Giannitsis was annihilated after his pension-reform proposals. There are few precedents for this kind of universal attack on a politician,” said Loukas Tsoukalis, a prominent economics professor here.

Mr. Giannitsis’s proposals, which would have reduced the pension levels Greeks receive and made the system overall more sustainable given the country’s demographic and labor-force trends, were never taken to parliament.

“From the fridge to the bin!” said the front page of newspaper To Vima on April 28, 2001, as the frozen pension-reform plan was scrapped for good.

“When I told my colleagues in the cabinet about the reforms I was proposing—which mind you were not the toughest available—the attitude I got was that I was spoiling the party,” Mr. Giannitsis said in an interview.

“They were, like, ‘everything is going great right now, why are you bothering us with a problem that may implode in a decade?’”

There are many other examples.

 

Trade and The World's Most Misunderstood Accounting Identity: Y=C+I+G+X-M

Repeat after me:  Y=C+I+G+X-M is an accounting rule.  It does not explain anything about the economy.  It is as useful to telling us anything interesting about the economy as the equation biomass=plants+animals+bacteria tells us anything about the ecosystem.

Which is why this kind of article in the press makes me crazy (emphasis added)

The U.S. trade gap narrowed in April as the effects of a West Coast port slowdown faded, easing one of the biggest drags on economic growth during the opening months of the year....

This year’s volatile import and export figures worked out to an overall drag on the economy in the opening months of 2015....

A surge in imports and falling exports subtracted 1.9 percentage points from the headline figure. As measured by GDP, exports are a positive for economic growth, while imports are a negative...

“The huge drag on GDP from trade in Q1 will almost certainly not be repeated in Q2,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

Here is the logic.  The GDP is calculated by adding Consumer spending + Industrial spending + Government spending + eXports and then subtracting iMports.  Because imports are subtracted in the GDP equation, they look to the layman like they shrink the economy.  How do we grow the economy?  Why, let's reduce that number that is subtracted!  But this is wrong.  Totally wrong.   I have tried many times to explain this, but let me see if I can work by analogy.

Let's say we wanted an equation to count the amount of clothing we owned.  To make things simple, let's say we are only concerned with the total of Shirts, Pants, and Underwear.   Most of our clothes are in the closet, so we say our clothes are equal to the S+P+U we count in our closet.  But wait, we may have Loaned clothes to other people.  Those are not in our closet but should count.  So now clothes = S+P+U+L.  But we may also have borrowed clothes.  Some of those clothes we counted in the closet may be Borrowed and thus not actually ours, so we need to back these out.  Our final equation is clothes = S+P+U+L-B.  Look familiar?

Let's go further.  Let's say that we want to increase our number of clothes.  We want wardrobe growth!  Well, it looks like those borrowed clothes are a "drag" on our wardrobe size.  If we get rid of the borrowed clothes, that negative B term will get smaller and our wardrobe has to get larger, right?

Wrong.  Remember, like the GDP equation, our wardrobe size equation is just an accounting identity.  The negative B term was put in to account for the fact that some of the clothes we counted in S+P+U in the closet were not actually ours.  But if we decrease B, say by returning our friend's shirt, the S term will go down by the exact same amount.  Sure, B goes down, but so do the number of shirts we count in the closet.  So focusing on the B term gets us nowhere.

But it is actually worse than that, because focusing on reducing B makes us worse off.  If B rises, our wardrobe is no larger, but we get the use of all of those other pieces of clothing.  Our owned wardrobe may not be any larger but we get access to more choices and clothing possibilities.  When we drive B down to zero, our wardrobe is no larger and we are worse off with fewer choices.

Returning to the economy, I don't want to say that it's impossible for increases in imports to drag the economy.  For example, if oil prices rise, the imports number measured in dollars will likely rise, and the economy will likely be worse off as we have to give up buying other things to continue to buy the oil we need.  But, absent major price changes, drops in exports more likely just mirror drops in C+I+G.  If consumers are hurting, they spend less on everything, including imported goods.   At the end of the day, none of these numbers (Mr. Keynes, are you listening?) are independent variables.

Postscript:  By the way, the trade deficit is a mirage in another way - it looks at only a subset of trans-national financial transactions.   The flow of dollars is (mostly) always in balance.  So if we are net sending dollars overseas when trading hard goods, the dollars come back in foreign purchases of investments and financial goods (which aren't included in the trade numbers).  Saying we have a trade deficit is the same as saying we have a net investment surplus.  For you physical scientists out there, measuring the trade deficit is like drawing your box around the process wrong such that you miss some of the forces.

If you really want to know our trade problem, it's not the trade deficit per se, but the fact that the funds coming back via investments are largely invested in value-destroying government debt rather than productive investments.

Currency Manipulation

One of the critiques of any trade deal of late is that there should be penalties for countries guilty of "currency manipulation."  The concern is that countries will devalue their currency in an effort to make their own exports cheaper to other nations while making it harder for other countries to export back to them.  As an example, if the Chinese were to do something that cuts the value of the Yuan in half vs. the dollar, their products look very cheap to American consumers while American-produced goods suddenly look a lot more expensive to Chinese consumers.

I have two brief responses to this:

  1. I find it hilarious that anyone in the United States government, which has a Federal Reserve that has added nearly $2 trillion to its balance sheet in the service of cramming down the value of the dollar, can with a straight face accuse other nations of currency manipulation.  In practice in today's QEconomy, currency manipulation means another country is doing exactly what we are doing, but just doing it faster.
  2. As an American consumer, to such currency manipulation by other countries I say, Bring it On!  If China wants to hammer its own citizens with higher prices and lower purchasing power just to subsidize lower prices for me, I am happy to let them do it.  Yes, a few specific politically-connected export businesses lose revenues, but trying to prop them up is pure cronyism.  Which is one reason I think Elizabeth Warren is a total hypocrite.  The constituency of the poor and lower middle class she presumes to speak for are the exact folks who shop at Walmart and need very price break on everyday goods they can get.  Senator Warren's preferences for protectionist trade policies and a weak dollar will hurt these folks the most.

Nestle: Private Company Getting Blamed for Government Incompetence

The story begins with a discovery that the permit under which Nestle's Arrowhead Water has been collecting water in the San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988.  LOL, oops.  Environmental and other Leftish sites are calling for Nestle's head and somehow blaming Nestle for this.

As a permittee with the US Forest Service (USFS) in California and across the country, I can guess with pretty high confidence exactly what happened here.  For years I was head of a trade group of recreation concessionaires (think lodges and guides and such) who do business in the USFS under permit.  Most of these were located in California.  For years, the biggest problem we have had with the USFS in California is that they are years and years behind in nearly all their permit renewals.  There are literally hundreds of expired permit in the USFS in California alone.

For reasons that probably go to bureaucratic incentives, despite the Forest Service's huge budget, they are loath to allocate resources to renewing these permits -- they want to fill their organization with biologists and archaeologists and arborists, not contracts people.  Making the situation worse, Forest Service and other Federal rules have burdened the permit renewal process with so many legal requirements that each one, even if trivial in size and impact, is absurdly time-consuming to complete.

This is not a new situation -- it has obtained for years.  Almost five years ago I met personally with the Chief of the Forest Service in DC and begged for more resources to be assigned to permit renewals, but to no avail.   I did the same in a meeting barely a month ago with the head of the USFS's Region 5 (basically California).   All of us permittees have been vociferously complaining about this for years.

When you look at these situations, then, what you will see is not some evil private business trying to get over on the public, but a business that is literally screaming in frustration, year in and year out, begging the US Forest Service to address its permit renewal.   Generally, local Forest Service staff will give the company verbal assurances that they should keep operating, so they do, continuing to pay their fees and operate within the guidelines of the old, expired contract.

I would be willing to bet a fair amount of money that this is exactly what happened to Nestle.

By the way, the usual groups seem to be piling on Nestle about bottled water from the Sacramento tap water system.  A couple of comments:

  • Environmentalists seem to obsessively hate bottled water, but ignore what a trivial, trivial percentage of total water use is bottled.
  • Critics are accusing Nestle of making obscene profits on Sacramento tap water.  But if they really think the spread between tap water and bottled water is too large, isn't the real issue that Sacramento is under-pricing its tap water?  After all, Nestle is paying what everyone else in the town is paying for water.
  • Environmentalists have a misguided fetish for local foods, often ignoring that transportation costs and energy are a tiny percentage of most food production costs  (a percentage small enough to be dwarfed by differential productivity of soils and climates).  But here, all they can possibly accomplish is to chase Nestle's bottling plant out of California and then have the water trucked back into the state.  This might be a net gain depending on the differential value of California water vs. fuel, but we can't know that because California water pricing is so screwed up.

Yawning Through the Outrage

There are a lot of things out there that generate tons of outrage that do about zero to work me up.  A good example is the recent kerfuffle over a school district assigning kids a debating assignment to argue both sides of the question "Was there actually a Holocaust?"

Certainly this was a fairly boneheaded topic to choose for such an assignment out of the universe of potential topics.   But I will say that this assignment is the type of thing that should be done a LOT more in schools, both in primary schools and in higher education.  Too often we let students make the case for a particular side of an argument without their even adequately understanding the arguments for the other side.  In some sense this brings us back to the topic of Caplan's intellectual Turing test.

I did cross-x debate all the way from 6th grade to 12th.  There is a lot to be said for the skill of defending one side of a proposition, and then an hour later defending the other (that is, if cross-x debate had not degenerated into a contest simply to see who can talk faster).

I remember a few months ago when a student-producer called me for a radio show that is produced at the Annenberg School at UCLA USC.   She was obviously smart and the nature of her job producing a political talk show demanded she be moderately well-informed.  She had called me as a climate skeptic for balance in a climate story (kudos there, by the way, since that seldom happens any more).  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty involved in the climate topic but had never heard the skeptic's argument from an actual skeptic.  Everything she knew about skeptics and their positions she knew from people on the other side of the debate.  The equivalent here are people who only understand the logic behind Democrat positions insofar as they have been explained by Rush Limbaugh -- which happens a lot.   We have created a whole political discourse based on straw men, where the majority of people, to the extent they understand an issue at all, only have heard one side talking about it.

I think the idea of kids debating both sides of key issues, with an emphasis on nudging them into trying to defend positions that oppose their own, is a great process.  It is what I do when I teach economics, giving cases to the class and randomly assigning roles (ie you are the guy with the broken window, he is the glazier, and she is the shoe salesman).  The problem, of course, is that we have a public discourse dominated by the outrage of the minority.  It would take just one religious student asked to defend abortion rights or one feminist asked to defend due process rights for accused rapists to freak out, and the school would probably fold and shut down the program.

Which is too bad.  Such discourse, along with Caplan's intellectual Turing test, would be centerpieces of any university I were to found.  When we debated back in the 1970's, there was never a sense that we were somehow being violated by being asked to defend positions with which we didn't believe.  It was just an excersise, a game.  In fact, it was incredibly healthy for me.  There is about no topic I can defend better than free trade because I spent half a year making protectionist arguments to win tournaments.    I got good at it, reading the judge and amping up populism and stories of the sad American steel workers in my discourse as appropriate.  Knowing the opposing arguments backwards and forwards, I am a better defender of free trade today.