Monday, September 21, 2009

Both saltwater and freshwater economists got it wrong on free trade -- and still do

How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?” was the title of a New York Times magazine article on September 6. Good question -- answered at length by Paul Krugman, a Pulitzer prize-winner in economics. Now the question has become: did Krugman get it wrong in a crucial respect – international trade?

In his 7,000-word essay, Krugman targeted mainline economists not only for failing to foresee today’s economic crisis but, more important, for being blind “to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy.” They blinded themselves by their exuberant faith in an efficient free market, a faith that they successfully spread to others, policymakers included.

In the field of macroeconomics, a significant theoretical difference has long existed quietly between those whom Krugman called “freshwater” economists (mainly at inland schools) and “saltwater economists” (mainly in coastal U.S. universities) over the cause and cure of recessions. That difference did not erupt on the policy level until the unprecedented economic shock hit last year.

What both salt- and freshwater economists ignored

The September 20 Times magazine has now printed nine letters with thoughtful comments on Krugman’s article. One was from Philip K. Verleger Jr., a business professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, a former staff economist at the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors and a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.

Verleger praised Krugman’s essay “as far as it goes,” but faulted it for ending “at the edge of salt water.” His three-paragraph critique is worth quoting in full:

“Krugman does not raise the subject of international trade. Yet for years saltwater and freshwater economists have all written and preached of the benefits of free trade. Larry Summers [now director of the National Economic Council], for example, has endorsed the view that trillions of dollars of benefits would accrue by opening international markets. I was part of the chorus for more than 10 years as a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“Here, too, I believe economists got it wrong. The United States’ economic situation has been harmed, not helped, by the push for free trade. America’s skilled workers and middle class are undoubtedly much worse off thanks to the market-opening measures negotiated over the past three decades at the encouragement of almost all economists. The losses have occurred because the theoretical benefits projected by economists are blocked again and again by our trade partners.

“Unfortunately, few economists are willing to offer the same detailed criticism of trade policies that Krugman has offered of macroeconomics.”
The good news is that many policymakers now do understand that the financial markets, and their industry, are not self-regulating. As President Obama said in his weekly address on September 19, Congress must “put in place a series of tough, common-sense rules of the road that will protect consumers from abuse, let markets function fairly and freely, and help prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again.”

But it is not at all clear whether the Obama administration understands that international trade also is not self-regulating, and that it too needs a series of tough, common-sense rules of the road that will protect consumers and workers, let markets function fairly and freely, and help prevent a crisis like this one from ever happening again.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Urgent advice for G20 summiteers: Jobless recovery is no recovery

The world’s top labor leaders are urging the world’s top government leaders to make the global unemployment crisis the No. l priority on their agenda.

It is imperative, the labor leaders insist, that the government leaders turn their G20 summit next week into a jobs summit. “As regards unemployment, the worst is still to come,” says labor’s Pittsburgh Declaration, after the city in which the summit will be held September 24-25.

In releasing the 14-page declaration on September 16, Gus Ryder, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said: “Governments must do much more to arrest the plunge in jobs.”

Although the G20 summit is a meeting of governments, about 50 union leaders from every continent will be in Pittsburgh to lobby their government officials on the urgency of the unemployment crisis.

According to the OECD, the number of jobless people is likely to reach 57,000,000 people this year in its 30 member-countries. Counting the whole world, 200,000,000 may be pushed into extreme poverty this year.

And yet a New York Times headline announced on September 5, “In Unemployment Report, Signs of a Jobless Recovery,” juxtaposing two opposing trends: a continuing decline in employment and a seeming improvement in some sectors of the economy.

“Many experts,” the Times explained, “envision a jobless recovery, in which the economy grows and job losses persist.”

Whatever the future holds, there’s something we should get straight right now. A jobless recovery is a contradiction in terms. It is an oxymoron. Failure to recognize it as such prolongs a dangerous delusion about the economy: that it can work fairly well even when unprecedented millions of men and women are without work.
That delusion reinforces policymaking that concentrates on improving financial markets, to the exclusion of the labor market. How much confidence can we place in an economy whose growth is unconnected with work when so much work is left undone?

‘Inequality’ identified as the root of global crisis

While the Pittsburgh Declaration has a long inventory of specific reforms to be adopted, it also calls on world leaders to “build a new model for a balanced economy,” for this fundamental reason:
“It [the new model] must bring to an end the policies that have generated massive inequality between and within nations over the past two decades and that are the root causes of the current global crisis. A fairer redistribution of wealth is the only sustainable route out of this crisis – and the only way to restore the trust of working people in their economic and financial systems.”

To build a new model requires leaders to “muster the political will to break with the policies of the past so as to ensure that there is no return to ‘business as usual’.”

More specifically, it requires them to “turn away” from a model they embraced at the London G20 summit early this year when they endorsed the current model of “an open world economy based on market principles.”

However, the Declaration adds, workers and unions “have no confidence that this time governments and bankers will get it right.” To get it right, “it is essential that the voices of working people in developed, emerging, and developing countries are heard in the G20’s discussions.”

The G20 does heed the advice of bankers and their organizations. When will the G20 start listening to the voices of workers and their organizations?

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Seeking better ways to evaluate a nation’s well-being

How to tell whether a country is making progress? Experts have been grappling with that question for years under the auspices of the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD).

They have now come up with recommendations that will be discussed at the October 27-30 OECD World Forum on “Statistics, Knowledge, and Policy” to be held in Busan, Korea.

The goal is to reach an international consensus on indicators that transcend the traditional one, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures a nation’s total flow of goods and services.

It’s time to end “GDP fetishism,” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, told a Bloomberg reporter last week. “So many things that are important to individuals are not included in GDP. There needs to be an array of numbers, but we need to understand the role of each number. We may not be able to aggregate everything together.”

In a September 14 announcement OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria observed that there is a growing gap between what official statistics state and the conditions under which people live their daily lives. “This gap,” he said, “can be clearly damaging both to the credibility of political debate and action and to the very functioning of democracy in our countries.“

The World Forum
in Korea is part of a global project on measuring the progress of societies, initiated by the OECD five years ago.

A newly released draft OECD working paper sets out a proposed framework to measure that progress – a framework “broad-based and flexible enough to be applied in many situations around the world.”

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

The President's Trade Quandries

Trade and globalization: where do they rank on the list of President Obama’s priorities? If you rely on the White House Website, they are not a priority of his at all.

When I checked the Website five days ago, I found that the home page listed 22 “issues,” lined up alphabetically from Civil Rights to Women. Then I clicked on “Additional Issues” at the end of the 22-item list. Seven more popped up, with Faith at the top, followed by six more listed alphabetically, from Arts to Transportation. No Trade or Globalization.

I turned to a “contact us” form, whicd invites the viewer to submit comments or questions for the President or his staff. I submitted the following;

"Mr. President: Why are two highly important issues -- globalization and trade -- omitted from your list of issues and additional issues?. That's very strange. You need to take a clear stand on these issues, considering their impact on American working men and women. I know your advisers would like to duck these issues, but that's impossible. Bob Senser"
I checked a box marked “a response requested.” Today, after getting no response, I scanned the Website again. The 22 issues and seven additional issues were still there as before. No additions.

It occurred to me that Globalization and Trade might be treated under Foreign Policy or Economics. No, they are not.

The President is the midst of a historic struggle for universal health coverage for Americans, a goal that none of his predecessors, from President Truman on, had achieved. I presume that his “issues” staff did prepare drafts at least on Trade, but that anything clear on this controversial subject would ignite additional fireworks, which the White House did not want to set off at this time.

In any case, because of conflicting pressures, foreign and domestic, as well as a less than full grasp of globalization, the President appears to be in a real quandary on trade. But he will certainly have to take a stand of some kind next week, when he addresses the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh, followed by a G20 summit the following week in the same city.

Will he come down on the side of workers? Or on the side of major American corporations whose highly profitable off-shore production, imported into the United States, accounts for 40 percent or more of the huge U.S. trade deficit?

On September 11 the President imposed increased duties for three years on tire imports from China, ruling in favor of a petition by the United Steelworkers and a few U.S.-based corporations. See my article, “Obama Faces Crucial Test on Trade,” for background.

In explaining the President’s decision, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said: “When China came into the WTO, the U.S. negotiated the ability to impose remedies just like this one…Enforcing trade laws is key to maintaining an open and free trading system.”

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Very rich getting very much richer

Robust economic gains were widely shared in the three decades after World War II. The average income for the bottom 90 percent in those years (1946-1976) actually increased more rapidly percentage-wise than the average income of the top 1 percent. Those days are long gone.

In the three decades since 1976, the incomes of the bottom 90 percent of households have risen only slightly, but the incomes of the top 1 percent have soared, as illustrated in the above graphic provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a Washington think tank.
That is among of the income disparities highlighted in a September 9 CBPP report on newly released Census Bureau/IRS data analyzed by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez

Although economic equality is high in the United States, inequality in wealth is even higher, as noted in Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute 2007 report on inequality, one of the Institute’s series on the Measure of Economic Well-Being.

The CBPP report does not deal with whether the increased concentration of income caused the economic collapse that began in 2008. At least one noted economist does – Thomas Palley in a policy paper for the New America Foundation. See my August 25 Weblog story on it, titled “Rx: a new economic model that would value work and workers.”

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Friday, September 04, 2009

A new path for globalization as envisioned by Japan’s new Prime Minister

“In the post-Cold War period, Japan has been continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization. In the fundamentalist pursuit of capitalism, people are treated not as an end but as a means. Consequently, human dignity is lost.”
That was the opening paragraph of a New York Times op-ed article written by Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, published under the title “A New Path for Japan” on August 27.

Three days later Hatoyama’s Democratic Party won a landslide electoral victory that will make him Japan’s prime minister on September 16.

Hatoyama’s campaign centered on a return to “the idea of fraternity.” In the Times article he described fraternity in terms that led the blog of Public Citizens' Global Trade Watch to headline his victory as one in which “Fair traders Sweep Japanese Elections.”

Globalization “has progressed without any regard for non-economic values, or for environmental issues or problems of resource restriction,” Hatoyama wrote, and added:
“Under the principle of fraternity, we would not implement policies that leave areas relating to human lives and safety – such as agriculture, the environment, and medicine – to the mercy of globalism.

“Our responsibility as politicians is to refocus our attention on those non-economic values that have been thrown aside by the march of globalism. We must work on policies that regenerate the ties that bring people together, that take greater account of nature and the environment, that rebuild welfare and medical systems, that provide better education and child-rearing support, and that address wealth disparities.”
The Times op-ed was an edited excerpt from a much longer article in the September issue of the monthly Japanese journal article Voice. The on-line Wall Street Journal ran Hatoyama’s complete article on September 3 under the title “My Political Philosophy.”

The full article has a conclusion not included in the Times excerpt:

“We are currently standing at a turning point in global history, and therefore our resolve and vision are being tested, not only in terms of how we try to formulate policies to stimulate the domestic economy, but also in terms of how we try to build a new global and political order.”

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Obama faces crucial test on trade

Should the U.S. government impose tariffs on the China-made tires that are flooding the U.S. market? That’s just the immediate question that President Obama must decide in the next few days.

But the larger question is: Should he begin to reverse a trade policy that, day after day, is bleeding more and more American jobs and enfeebling the American economy?

The President has the legal power to restrict imports under certain conditions. Congress insisted on that restriction – and China agreed to it -- as a critical component of legislation approving China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2001: the U.S. can put up a barrier against a flood of imports that damaged domestic business.

President Bush rejected every petition – four in all – to enforce that restriction. The tire petition is the first one to reach President Obama.

It was approved in July bv the U.S. agency that reviews such petitions, the International Trade Commission (ITC). The ITC found that the American tire market had indeed been disrupted by a surge of Chinese products, and by a 4-2 vote recommended approval of the petition, brought by the United Steelworkers in April. The deadline for Obama’s decision is September 17.

At stake is more than whether the People’s Republic of China should be permitted to export an unrestricted number of tires into the United States – 46,000,000 of them last year, valued at $1.700,000,000 – whatever the cost to the American tire industry.

In his September 2 Washington Post column, Harold Meyerson spelled out some broader implications of an Obama decision not to enforce U.S. trade policy:

“Why would anyone concerned about American jobs believe such provisions in future trade agreements? Why would U.S. manufacturers maintain their domestic production if they know that none of the legal protections they’ve been promised will ever be invoked?”
The even bigger question: will President Obama show that the U.S. government will no longer be a party to dismantling the economy of the United States?

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Many children left behind in U.S.

Although the United States is a very high-income country, its record on the well-being of children lags behind that of many countries that are less rich, according to the OECD’s first-ever report on child well-being within OECD-member territory.

Here are some of the details that “Doing Better for Children” contains on how the U.S. record on children ranks among the 30 OECD countries:

-- fifth worst in child mortality.
-- seventh worst in average educational achievement of 15-year-old children.
-- sixth worst in rates of low birth weight.
-- twenty-ninth lowest in the rate of births for girls aged 15-19.
Total U.S. public spending on child welfare and education in 2003 was $140,000 per child 17 years old and younger, compared to the OECD average of about $125,000

The United States should spend more on giving better starts in life on younger, disadvantaged children, the report recommends.

Last year the OECD issued a report on income distribution and poverty in its 30 member countries. It rated the United States as the country with the highest inequality level and poverty rate, Mexico and Turkey excepted. U.S. income inequality was found to be to rising even more after 2000, thanks partly to a decrease in government spending on unemployment compensation and other social benefits.

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TV takes a rare look at a factory closing through eyes of its workers

It’s a rarity: a TV show that depicts an event through the eyes of workers. HBO does that in a new documentary called “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” which airs Monday, September 7, at 9 pm EDT.

The plant closing took place in Moraine, Ohio, just two days before Christmas last year. “The Last Truck” views the final months of the plant -- and of the jobs of 2,500 workers and 200 management staff -- on up to the production of the very last truck.

The newly jobless recall poignant moments, such as the day workers had to remove their toolboxes and give up their GM ID cards. An HBO press release explains: “The GM workers lost more than jobs, including the pride they share in their work and the camaraderie built through the years. To the natives of Moraine and the greater Dayton area, General Motors wasn’t just a car company – it was the lifeblood of the community."

For a toolmaker, Pope Eye, the closing means the end of the good life, the end of a manufacturing era as we know it. “My grandson will have a worse life than I had,” he says at a bar near the plant.

While the film focuses on Moraine, Ohio, the tragedy it describes is typical of what has happened in many hundreds of American communities. Between 2001 and 2008, some 40,000 manufacturing plants were closed in the United States, resulting in the lose of millions of family-supporting jobs, not just in the plants themselves but in the surrounding communities.

For more details, check the AFL-CIO Blog.

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