Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

For a Universal Debt and Rental Moratorium

For a Universal Debt and Rental Moratorium

Incomes are collapsing throughout the economy, and both businesses and individuals face a crisis in meeting fixed payments they can’t control.  The most direct step we can take is to temporarily suspend these payment obligations.

Suppose the government were to announce that, starting immediately, all stipulated debt and real estate rental payments were to be suspended for all borrowers and renters.  This moratorium could have an ending date of, say, two months in the future, with the option of extending it if circumstances require.  No interest would accrue to any of these obligations; in effect, we would be stopping the clock on them for a period of time.

Of course, if nothing else were done this would shut down the credit and rental systems completely for the duration of the moratorium, so a stipulation would have to be added that it applies only to debt or rental obligations established at the time of the announcement.  We’d all have to keep two sets of books, one for pre-announcement loans and rentals, the other for post.

International obligations are somewhat more complicated, but the economic heft of the US is great enough that these conditions could probably be imposed unilaterally on foreign counterparties, especially if the logic of this step persuaded other countries to adopt a similar course of action.

A debt moratorium would dampen some channels of financial instability and provide greater security for most participants in the economy.  By itself, however, it would not address the gaping hole in the real economy caused by shutting down whole sectors of goods and services production.  That requires other forms of stimulus.

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Some Ideas for Pandeminomics

Some Ideas for Pandeminomics

The starting point for all of what follows is that government, if it has the will to act, is currently in the driver’s seat.  Much of the private sector is facing a terrifying confluence of crunches: supply breakdowns, demand falling off a cliff for many goods and services, and a looming shortfall of liquidity to service debt.  A wide swath of business is on the ropes and needs a rescue from government.  This puts the power in our hands if we can wield it.  Of course, with Republican dominance in Washington and the continued loyalty of the Democratic Party to the liberal wing of the plutocracy, the likelihood that we will take advantage of this moment is small.  Still, the opportunity is there, and that’s the basis for thinking ambitiously.

1. Debt-equity buyouts.  There’s a lot of business debt, and borrowers face a crisis as their earnings tumble.  Andrew Ross Sorkin proposes a scheme in which the government would offer no-interest bridge loans to any and all comers, with repayment delayed until after the immediate crisis abates.  The key condition, and just about the only one, is that recipients commit to retaining 90% of their pre-virus workforce.  Dean Baker would go further and provide direct bailout support in exchange for quid pro quo’s, like zeroing out shareholders and limiting CEO pay.

Here is another idea.  Have the government offer to purchase any and all outstanding corporate debt, converting it into an equity stake.  Wipe the debt off the books and take a public ownership position instead, which could be used to pursue objectives, like cutting pay at the top and expanding worker benefits, that the vast majority of Americans support.

2. Public voucher purchases.  For the small business and self-employed sector, particularly in services, I like the Saez-Zucman idea of having the government serve as buyer of last resort.  Specifically, I would set up a public fund to enable the government—perhaps at state and local levels—purchase vouchers for future goods.  A massage therapist, for example, could sell a quantity of vouchers for future massage sessions, providing an income stream to make it through the quarantine.  When the crisis recedes, the government would distribute these vouchers to the public, either through a highly discounted sale or even free distribution.  Perhaps the vouchers could be for steep discounts, say 80%, off the posted price to all for a bit of post-virus income as well.

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Benefit-Cost Analysis and the Coronavirus

Benefit-Cost Analysis and the Coronavirus

We are in the middle of a flurry of decision-making on how to deal with COVID-19.  After much resistance, officials are now canceling public events, closing schools and discouraging other activities that put us in contact with each other.  Travel restrictions and possible shutdowns of workplaces, as we’ve seen in Italy, may be up next.

It’s interesting we haven’t heard anything about benefit-cost analysis in all this.  Nearly all economists profess to think that BCA is the single best decision method.  Almost every introductory economics textbook is built around benefit-cost thinking, and for decades federal regulations have mandated BCA for proposals with significant economic impacts.

But now we are facing immense choices—what could have a more drastic impact than shutting down most of the economy by fiat?—and BCA is nowhere to be found.

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Some Instant Thoughts on Super Tuesday

(Dan here…Late to AB posting…what a difference a day or two can make.  Elizabeth Warren has withdrawn from the election process and is not endorsing either Biden nor Sanders at the moment.  Peter weighs in speculating on what is next.)

1. Biden benefitted from a wave of (orchestrated) last minute endorsements. One effect of this wave was to divert attention from Biden the candidate to the endorsers and their combined bandwagon effect. Particular endorsements helped in specific states: O’Rourke in Texas, Klobuchar in Minnesota. But Biden has flamed out in all his previous runs for president because he is a weak campaigner, not very bright and prone to own goals. He would be mincemeat for Trump. Sanders, however, has vowed to make an issue only of political differences, not personal qualities. We’ll see if that’s enough of an umbrella for Biden to get through to the nomination.

2. There must be immense pressure on Warren to remain in the race. By any logic, she should drop out now and not soak up any more scarce resources, whether money, staff or her own time and energy. If you look at the non-southern state results yesterday, however, her vote share had a big impact on the outcome. If her support would break, say, two-thirds for Sanders and one-third for Biden, this would be enough to put Bernie over the top in close races. I have no doubt the preferred lineup for the Democratic Party, donors and staff, is Biden-Warren-Sanders. It will be interesting to see if she keeps playing the game.

3. I’m not surprised that the party apparatus is so determined to defeat Bernie, even at the cost of re-electing Trump. Sanders has never been a Democrat. He caucuses with them in the Senate, but, aside from the inevitable vote-rustling in congress, he has never coordinated with them politically. His donor base minimally overlaps with theirs. His staff consists of political professionals who were either outliers in the Party or outside it altogether. If he were elected the result would be a hostile takeover of the national apparatus, and almost everyone who is a part of it today would have to find another line of work come January. It’s existential for them. The same probably holds in many or most state parties.

4. To recap #1, the Democrats have decided to place their full bet with Biden. It may well work for them, but based on the man’s history, it’s a risky move. If Biden self-destructs again their only fallback is to put forward a third party spoiler in the general election.

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The Debate within Unions over Health Care is about the Nature of Unionism Itself

The Debate within Unions over Health Care is about the Nature of Unionism Itself

Casual observers of the political scene got an insight into union politics when a small storm erupted over a flyer distributed by Nevada’s Culinary Union attacking Bernie Sanders and his Medicare for All proposal.

Politico has a piece surveying similar disputes in other states and nationwide.  Some unions, like the building trades and the Teamsters, want to keep the insurance plans they’ve negotiated for their members; most others want universal public insurance.

Aside from the specifics of each individual bargaining agreement and its health care provisions, this issue reveals the fundamental difference between two forms of unionism.

Business unionism is based on the idea that union members, drawing on their own resources, can create the best conditions for their work.  From this point of view, the greater the difference between how well off union members are compared to the nonunion workers around them, the more attractive the union will be, the more members it will have, and the more benefits they can win at the bargaining table.

Social unionism also wants to promote the interests of its members, but it believes that what can be achieved society-wide, through coalition-building and political action, is far greater than what any single union can achieve on its own.  Instead of increasing the gap between union and nonunion workers, social unionists want everyone to move up together as far as possible.

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Bloomberg’s Plan for Reskilling America: The Quid without the Pro Quo

Bloomberg’s Plan for Reskilling America: The Quid without the Pro Quo

The Intercept usefully preports Michael Bloomberg’s proposals for higher education, focusing on plans to upgrade workforce skills along the lines desired by employers.  Here’s the selection they excerpted that covers this, worth reading carefully:

There’s a lot here that would be useful to businesses located in the US if they want to take advantage of it: money for vocational degrees geared to business needs, improved credentialing for these degrees, and support for internships and similar on-the-job training programs.  As the language of the press prelease makes clear, businesses would play a determining role in deciding what is worthy of being learned, how instruction and work experience would be carried out, what criteria would be used to ascertain skill acquisition, and how credentials would be standardized for use in an economy where workers primarily move horizontally across employers.  Some of this is based on a partial reading of the German apprenticeship system, where businesses work closely with education and training institutions to promote similar types of skills.

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What to Do about Amazon

What to Do about Amazon

I think Farhad Manjoo gets it right about Amazon: while the company’s sheer size, not to mention its often shady business practices, call out for public intervention, “Amazon is pushing a level of speed, convenience, and selection in shopping that millions of customers are integrating into their daily lives.”

Breaking it up would be wrong, since the essence of what Amazon offers is its potential universality.  For me, shopping on Amazon is almost like what I imagine shopping to be like in a socialist society, minus the lack of accountability and the astronomic riches of Jeff Bezos.  Let’s fix it.  Make Amazon a public utility with proper protections for workers, consumers, and enterprises that use it as a marketing platform.  Why not?

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Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a story about Bellingham, Washington, a picturesque town that looks out across Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands. Bellingham is home to Western Washington University, but rational thought is in short supply when it comes to climate activism.

What got the country’s attention is a proposal before the city council to require all homeowners to switch from natural gas to electric heating by 2040. A number of cities already require new construction to use electric heat, but Bellingham would be the first to mandate a complete phaseout for everyone.

The opposition is spearheaded by, surprise, the privately owned gas and electric utilities, which plan a PR campaign talking up the wonders of CH4. Real estate interests are unhappy too. They will face off against the enviros, who all seem to see this as a big step toward municipal carbon neutrality.

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Small Town Support for Trump and “The Working Class”

Small Town Support for Trump and “The Working Class”

Much has been written about voters, sometimes labeled the “white working class”, who live in small towns, have low incomes and supported Trump in 2016.  There are various hypotheses—not, despite the rhetoric, mutually exclusive—that have been proposed to explain this: never-ending latent racism galvanized by the experience of having a black president, a vote of despair in the face of economic decline, paranoia fueled by fictitious narratives of immigrant crowding and crime.  I just finished reading a post-mortem on the recent British election that, by analogy, suggests two more hypotheses about Trumpism:

1) With decades-long declines in deindustrializing areas, there has been a steady outflow of mostly younger residents.  This has a tendency to shift the politics of those who remain to the right based on age considerations alone, but the outflow is likely selective in other respects as well.  Those who light out to the cities are probably better educated and more tuned in to trends in metropolitan culture, taking their blue votes to jurisdictions that already pile up big majorities for Democrats.

2) What do people do when they lose their long-term jobs in manufacturing and the relatively well-paid services that cluster around manufacturing nodes?  If they don’t emigrate, what’s left?  Many look for bits of opportunity where they can find them, combinations of self-employment, gig work, off-the-books service work, etc.  Those who scrounge for income in these ways are the same people as the workers who were laid off during deindustrialization, but their class position has changed.  They no longer look to unions or government regulation to protect their interest against employers, quite the opposite.  Union work now competes with them, and regulation just makes it harder to cut the corners their livelihood depends on cutting.  In other words, their income has gone down but they are less “working class” than before.

Just to be clear, I’m not pushing these explanations.  They are just hypotheses, and it isn’t obvious to me what kind of evidence would adjudicate them.

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