Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Must-Read for President Obama: families face more insecurity

Economic insecurity appears more the rule than the exception for American families, and that trend has worsened in the last few years. So says a new study, “Economic Security Index,” just published by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Other highlights of the study, covering the period of 1985-2007, include:

-- The majority of Americans had no safety net of savings.
-- Economic insecurity has risen across all demographic groups in America, with African-Americans faring the worst of all.
-- About 28,000,000 Americans were economically insecure in 1985. They numbered 46,000,000 in 2007.
-- The rising prevalence of two-earner families does not appear to have provided a big income cushion to families, because of rising prices, especially for health care.
-- Projections to 2009 suggest that in the last few years the level of economic security experienced by Americans was greater than any other time over the past quarter century.
The July report is part of an effort to develop a coherent measure of economic insecurity, called the Economic Security Index (ESI), based on the joint occurrence of three major risks to economic well-being: 1) a major loss in income; 2) large out-of-pocket medical expenses; and 3) inadequate savings to buffer the first two risks.

The ESI, as defined in the 24-page July report, will be updated on a regular basis to include new data and specific risks not covered. It is designed to provide hard data to policymakers.

I learned of this study from a New York Times op-ed column by Bob Herbert. Though technically “opinion,” the July 17 column has more facts than you’ll find in news reported by some parts of the media. Read more!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Vietnam’s dissidents –are they absent from the American mind?

In my small voice as a blogger, I’ve been guilty of the same failing as the louder media -- I’ve been ignoring how Vietnam’s Communist Party/state apparatus has cracked down on the small but persistent pro-democracy movement in the country.

In its summer issue, Dissent magazine, published in New Yoirk, breaks the silence with an article titled “Vietnamese Dissidents: Absent from the Western Mind.” Dustin Roasa, a free lance writer based in Cambodia, describes the most recent chapter in the history of Vietnamese dissidents, which began on April 8, 2006, when a group of activists posted on-line a “Manifesto 2006 on Freedom and Democracy.”

More than 2,000 Vietnamese – lawyers, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, ex-Party members, writers, and intellectuals from all parts of the country – signed the document. They became known as Bloc 8406, after the date it was posted.

In a visit to Vietnam in the winter of 2007, Roasa talked with several Bloc 8406 members and found their mood pessimistic. The movement was under siege and losing members to prison. It was not gaining the attention of the foreign media.

“The dissidents I know hope for foreign involvement in their cause,” Doasa writes . The hope was that media interest would pressure the Party to listen to dissidents like Nguyen Dan Que, who after 20 years in prison is under house arrest in Saigon and has refused offers of exile to the United States.

In the summer of 2008, the government quietly gave a multibillion-dollar land concession in the Central Highlands to a bauxite mining company in China, which brought in thousands of “guest workers” from China. General Vo Nguyen Gap, 98, criticized the concession. So did some bloggers. “Few issues unite Vietnamese than suspicion of their large neighbor to the North,” Doasa points out.

A new wave of repression followed. At least 60 pro-democracy activists have been arrested since last October. One was a 41-year-old lawyer and graduate of Tulane, Le Cong Dinh, who gained fame for representing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in a trade dispute with the United State (over catfish dumping) and winning it. He also took on the job of defending dissidents in court, and began blogging about the bauxite mine and other government concessions to the People’s Republic of China.

On January 30, 2010, Le Cong Dinh was sentenced to five years in prison on a charge of conducting propaganda against the state.

Roasa writes: “As more Vietnamese become aware of the pro-democracy movement through the China issue, and as the crackdown against the dissidents continue to internsify, international support for the pro-democracy cause in Vietnam is crucial now more than ever.” He concludes:

“Imagine...if Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the gulag had fallen on deaf ears. Or if Charter 77 had never been read beyond the borders of Czechoslovia. There are Solzhenitsyns and Havels in Vietnam right now. Will anyone listen?”

On July 22 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped in Hanoi to celebrate the 15th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam relations. In a relatively brief talk, she said: “And the United States will continue to urge Vietnam to strengthen its commitment to human rights, and give its people say over the direction of their own lives. But this is not a relationship fixed upon our differences.”

Print Page Read more!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hong Kong for shared prosperity

The minimum wage law that Hong Kong adopted on July 17 won’t give anyone a pay increase until next year, but it’s already a clear defeat for what Milton Friedman once described as the world’s greatest experiment in laissez-faire capitalism.

Lee Cheuk-Yan, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) and a member of the city-state’s legislative council, conceded that the law has short-comings, but said: “This means goodbye to unfettered capitalism.”

Under Hong Kong’s status as a special region of the People’s Republic of China, its non-elected chief executive, Donald Tsang, has much discretion on how the new law is implemented. A commission, appointed by Tsang, will come up with figure setting the wage floor, which a HKFTU campaign has demanded to be HK$33 (US$4) an hour. The minimum to be approved is reportedly closer to US$3 an hour. No ceiling on hours is involved.

For these and other initiatives, the Wall Street Journal accused Mr. Tsang of “misguided populism.” In truth, his initiatives could be small steps toward shared prosperity. Read more!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Soaring job losses, trade deficit: is it time to increase tariffs on China’s imports?

The U.S.-China economic relationship is so greatly unbalanced in China’s favor that the United States needs to initiate a system of tariffs against China’s export machine. So says Steven Pearlstein, business columnist of the Washington Posr.

“Getting this economic relationship back into balance,” Pearlstein writes in his June 30 column, “is the single biggest challenge to the global economy, not just because of its direct effects on China and the United States, but the indirect effects it has on the rest of the world.“
China received a free pass into the World Trade Organization without having in place the fundamentals of a market system, Pearlstein points out. “Its business sector continues to de dominated by state-owned companies financed by state-owned banks within the context of what remains largely a state-planned economy.”

The result, as Pearlstein describes it, is a business sector difficult if not impossible for foreigners to penetrate, and “those outsiders who manage to break through invariably find that they have few protections from a system that is larded with corruption and largely unconstrained by the rule of law.”

Administration after administration in the United States has refused to challenge China’s mercantilism, in the hope that as the relationship deepened China would “make the inevitable transition to democratic capitalism.” But China’s view of business remains thoroughly mercantilist, and “to try to convince [it] otherwise is folly.”

Pearlstein contends it is urgent that the United States take the lead toward a solution by establishing a tariff regime that will increase the cost of imports not just from China, but also from ”other counties that keep their currencies artificially low, restrict the flow of capital or maintain significant barriers to imports of goods and services.”

How would such system work? Would it comply with WTO rules? Pearlstein declined to get into such details. “That’s why God created trade lawyers.”

Nor does he counter the arguments made against increasing tariffs. That would take a book. As it happens, the U.S. Business & Industry Council has just published a volume that buttresses Pearlstein’s position: “Free Trade Doesn’t Work: Why America Needs a Tariff.” Its author, Ian Fletcher, makes a strong case for “a flat tax on all imported good and services.”

Controversies over tariffs go back to the beginning of the nation. In a classic volume, “Opening America’s Market: U.S. Foreign Trade Policy since 1776,” Alfred. E Eckes Jr. describes how, at crucial times, “U.S. officials unilaterally opened the American market without gaining commensurate advantages in foreign markets for the products of American workers and American factories.”

Hence a merchandise trade deficit that this year in a single month, April, totaled $52,500,000,000, reaching $19,300,000,000 for China alone. According to a report earlier this year by the Economic Policy Institute, the growing overall trade deficit with China eliminated or displaced an estimated 2,400,000 U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2008.

A new EPI report illustrates how China’s export-driven policies work. Its paper and paper products industry is now the largest in the world, thanks to WTO-illegal government subsidies of more than $32,100,000,000 since 2002. Paper imports to the United States are now rising faster than those from any other country. According to industry sources, an estimated 400,000 jobs are at risk, even though the U.S. industry is highly competitive.

Print Page Read more!