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

Hey Rustbelt and beyond, Losing factories is not new

(There’s a movie at the end!)

For decades we have been hearing about the loss of industrial production through out what is called the “Rust Belt”.  It’s presented, even as recent as the prior presidential election as a relative regional problem that only began post Reagan.  What gets me though is that the reporting and ultimately the politics are as if the rust belt is/was unique in their experience with the west and east coast experiencing nothing of the sort.  The presentation is of the west coast Hollywood economy and now the “tech” economy, the east coast (namely New York/Boston) being the money economy.  The south east is not considered other than Disney and orange production.  The north west?  Microsoft and Starbucks.  Well I think it used to be lumber.

Wiki notes that the rust belt is not geographic but is a term that “pertains to a set of economic and social conditions“.     It includes the northeast which is proper in that industry started there but I have had the feeling for a few decades now that such history is forgotten and thus no longer considered when we look to understand what the hell happened to the middle class.

Let me start with this fun fact.  Rhode Island was the most industrialized state per capita in the nation at one point.  Wiki notes that:

…Aldrich, as US Senator, became known as the “General Manager of the United States,” for his ability to set high tariffs to protect Rhode Island — and American — goods from foreign competition.

We were where the super rich came to escape the heat and play.  And then it started to die.  Not just here though.  Neighboring Massachusetts was hit as was Connecticut.  If you ever get a chance, come visit the New Bedford  Whaling museum and read about the massive industry that was there.  Example, the worlds largest mill of weaving looms.  Some 4000+!  Whaling from that city in the later 1800’s generated some $71 million per year!  Not impressed? Well, using the GDP deflator it’s $1.480 billion per year!

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Nick and Joe are doing their best to beat back Milton Friedman et al

Nick Hanauer, Joseph Sitglitz videos.

This is the latest presentation Nick Hanauer has made regarding the upside downness of our economy and the backward, selfish thinking that has gotten us here. In this one he is talking to his “plutocrat” friends:

We plutocrats need to see that the United States of America made us not the other way around. That a thriving middle class is the source of prosperity in capitalist economies, not a consequence of it. And we should never forget, that even the best of us, in worst of circumstances are barefoot by the side of a dirt road selling fruit.

He takes on economics and how it is used today by plutocrats to reinforce their positions:

…for thousands of years, these stories were called divine right. Today, we have trickle down economics. How obviously, transparently self-serving all of this is.

 

Then comes Joseph Stiglitz talking about the cause and fix for income inequality.  This is based on his latest book.     He lays the cause to the “supply side” economics and thus the results of politics and policy.  It was a “disaster”.

The financial sector in recent years has been more active in taking money out of corporations than putting money into the corporations.  The flow is going the other way.

It is nice to hear someone talking about the solution in a comprehensive way.  A way that reflects understanding society and its economy in the same manor we have come to understand the environment.

Wouldn’t you just love to see them together on one of the Sunday morning shows around at table with say Senator Warren and Sanders and on the other side the Koch brothers and say Paul Ryan, McConnell and Boehner?  Maybe a Chicago School boy or girl?  Let’s throw in Jack Lew or who ever is the latest to hold that position.  How about someone from labor and the US Chamber to balance it out?  Better yet, how about simply a table of Nick, Joe, Warren, Sanders, Labor and Robert Reich maybe also Paul Krugman.  Forget the fair and balance act.

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More New Books Highlight Plight of Middle Class

by Kenneth Thomas

More New Books Highlight Plight of Middle Class

The situation of the middle class is a hot topic these days, and rightly so. In addition to James Carville and Stan Greenberg’s recent book, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid, new books are out by Donald Barlett & James Steele, Jeff Faux, and Mike Lofgren.Together, they advance our understanding of middle class issues significantly.

Barlett and Steele have been sounding the alarm about middle class decline since they wrote the first newspaper articles forming the core of 1992’s America: What Went Wrong?  In The Betrayal of the American Dream, they tell the stories of everyday Americans, many of whom they kept up with after interviewing them for previous books. They date the beginning of the decline of the middle class to the 1970s, which I think is correct since that is when real wages for production and non-supervisory workers began their forty year decline. They emphasize the central role of Congressional and Presidential decision-making that has given us tax rules favoring the 1%, laws allowing private equity and other corporate raiders to raid pension funds and break contracts with unions and retirees, trade agreements, industry deregulation (which they see as highly destabilizing for the middle class), the destruction of retirement via the assault on pensions and their replacement with 401(k)’s, and the devastation of offshoring.

Their proposed solutions include raising taxes on the rich, and to consider instituting a financial transactions tax (also known as a Tobin tax, after its first proponent) or a gross receipts tax, which would be harder to dodge than the corporate income tax. Barlett and Steele argue further that we need to rebuild manufacturing and reduce the trade deficit, with high tariffs if necessary. They propose massive investments in infrastructure and education, including job training. Finally, they argue that the financial fraudsters who caused the 2008 financial crisis need to be prosecuted. Surprisingly, they say little about getting money out of politics, though they do mention it in their prologue as well as the well-funded corporate propaganda machine.

Jeff Faux, founder of the Economic Policy Institute, was fighting trade agreements long before mainstream economists were willing to admit that maybe free trade isn’t always good for everybody, especially workers in the United States. His book, The Servant Economy, is a dystopian vision of the future of the middle class if present trends are not reversed. His basic argument is what he calls an “end-of-empire story,” that the U.S. can no longer sustain subsidized capitalism, global military dominance, and middle class prosperity. He argues that the country’s former economic and military dominance gave it a “cushion” that was able to sustain the middle class, but that the pressures of international trade and global competition have eroded that cushion along with the nation’s ability to achieve all three of the goals mentioned above.

For Faux, much of the problem stems from the increasing U.S. trade deficit, which figures in prominently throughout the book. The rise of finance relative to manufacturing is a key problem as well, one which has made the Democratic Party more dependent on Wall Street Money, which led to Clinton ending Glass-Steagall and Obama treating bankers with kid gloves after he came into office. Worse, as we saw in the 2011 debt negotiations and other instances, the President has made it clear that he thinks there needs to be cuts to Social Security.

“Hope is not a strategy,” according to Faux, and he devotes an entire chapter to what he calls “the shaky case for optimism.” He foresees a “politics of austerity” that will mean cuts to middle class programs, the continuing loss of good jobs to the trade deficit, and slowly declining living standards and economic security for the vast majority of Americans for decades to come.. He calls cuts to Social Security and Medicare “a done deal.” To me, perhaps the single most depressing statistic in the book relates to the much hyped “onshoring” phenomenon: GE has moved some production from China to Louisville, but the workers there make $13/hour compared to the $22/hour they formerly made.

What, then, is to be done? In a talk Faux gave at the Economic Policy Institute August 15th, he explained that he didn’t see the need to give a laundry list of policy proposals because, first, he had done so in previous books, and second, there was no point in it unless we change government decision-making. Thus, it is essentially a one-point program, a constitutional amendment that ends corporate “personhood” permanently. This would also have the effect of overturning Citizens United. Without that, he argues, there is no hope.

Lofgren’s book, The Party Is Over, is a Republican-eye view of what went wrong, beginning with Newt Gingrich’s takeover of the Republican Party. While highly critical of the rightward, anti-science turn of his party, he argues that the Democrats are not much better, and have suffered from extremely bad messaging (he says the stimulus act should have been called the “jobs bill,” for example). Interestingly, his major recommendation is to cut trillions from defense spending and redirect it to infrastructure. Of course, he wants to get the money out of politics, too, but cutting defense is his most distinctive policy proposal.

Taken together, these books are largely complementary, though each has its own distinct emphasis. Faux’s book, in my opinion, is the best of the three, though also the most depressing. His vision of a likely future is far too plausible to take lightly.

cross posted with Middle Class Political Economist

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Why the World Should Care About America’s Middle Class

by Kenneth Thomas

Guest post: Why the World Should Care About America’s Middle Class

Tim Worstall, in his Forbes blog, attacks my series (here and here) on whether globalization is good for America’s middle class. Not on the basis that he disagrees with my conclusion (though he does), but because, he argues, there are much more important facts about globalization than a decline in the economic well-being of the middle class in America and Europe. In particular, he points to the great decline in poverty among developing nations that have embraced globalization:

This growth in incomes, in wealth, has been uneven, this is true. Largely speaking those places which have been taking part in globalisation, Indonesia, China, India, have been getting richer. Those that have not been, Somalia perhaps as an example, have not been.

Let’s leave aside the fact that these successful countries are hardly poster children for the kinds of so-called “free-market” policies that Worstall espouses, a point made particularly well by Dani Rodrik. And in the spirit in which Worstall granted my claims for the sake of argument, let’s grant his as well. (But if you want to get down into the weeds on the extent to which poverty reduction claims may be overstated, take a look at Robert Wade’s work.)

Here is the crux of Worstall’s argument:

So I would actually posit that whether the American, or European, or rich world, middle class benefits from globalisation is actually an incomplete question. Incomplete enough to be the wrong question. Almost to the point that the answer is “who cares?”.

The correct question is what is the distribution of all of the costs and all of the benefits of globalisation? To which my answer would be that a generation, perhaps even two generations, of stagnating lifestyles for the already rich, those middle classes, looks like a reasonable enough cost to pay for the other thing that is happening: the abolition of absolute human poverty in the rest of the world.

First, I think we should certainly care when hundreds of millions of people are suffering unnecessarily. Yes, unnecessarily, because contrary to Worstall’s claim, we are not trading off reduced economic well-being for hundreds of millions of middle class people for the lessened poverty of billions of other people. Indeed, the two are happening simultaneously, but as Ronald Rogowki pointed out in Commerce and Coalitions, it is perfectly feasible to have rich country winners compensate rich-country losers and still have all of them be better off from trade.

Politically, it is a hard row to how, as Rogowki pointed out: the winners from expanding trade increase their political power as a result of their increased income, making compensatory policies less likely. But ending globalization’s harm to the middle class in rich nations does not require us to take anything away from poorer people, not if you accept the theory of comparative advantage and the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem. It does require us to figure out a political solution to the problems faced by the losers, which as we can see in the United States is made more difficult by the decline of unions and by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

And second, we should care about the U.S. middle class (and Europe’s, for that matter) because how they react to their situation politically will have enormous consequences for the world economy and world politics. If the U.S. comes up with a “Smoot-Hawley” response to its economic problems, that would undo a lot of the gains Worstall sees as flowing from globalization, a point made recently by Dani Rodrik (via Mark Thoma). Even more ominously, in both the U.S. and Europe, we see increasing political polarization and the rise of nationalist political parties and movements, as noted by Paul Krugman. Economic decline is a scary thing, and people’s reactions to it can get downright ugly, to put it mildly.

For both of these reasons, then, what happens to the middle class in the U.S. and Europe will have repercussions far beyond those acknowledged by Worstall.

crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist

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Is Globalization Good for America’s Middle Class? Part 1

by Kenneth Thomas

Is Globalization Good for America’s Middle Class? Part 1

In this blog, I have frequently documented economic trends that have been bad for the middle class: Declining real wages, steadily falling bang for the healthcare buck, stagnant educational attainment, the gigantic cost of tax havens, etc. With this post, I want to begin exploring one possible reason for the economic insecurity of the middle class, namely globalization. Today, we will look at who wins and who loses from international trade, one of the key elements of globalization.
 
In some circles, one is likely to see a variant of the claim that “everybody” is better off because of freer trade. Even according to the most mainstream economic theory, this is simply false. The workhorse theory for determining the distributional effects of trade (i.e., who wins and who loses) is called the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, first enunciated in an article by Wolfgang Stolper and Paul Samuelson in 1941.

To understand this theory, you need to know that economists think about national economies in terms of the amount of land, labor, and capital they have compared to all other countries in the world. These “factors of production” can be in relatively high supply compared to the rest of the world, in which case they are referred to as “abundant,” or in relatively low supply compared to the rest of the world, in which case we call them “scarce.”

The theorem can be stated in quite simple terms, but its consequences are not at all simple: As trade expands, owners of abundant factors of production benefit, and owners of scarce factors of production are harmed. Here, “benefit” means their real income increases, while “harmed” means their real income decreases.

Remember, trade can expand for two main reasons. First technological innovations can reduce the cost of transportation, making it first possible, then cheaper, to send goods long distances. For example, political scientist Ronald Rogowski, in his great book Commerce and Coalitions shows how the introduction of the steamboat made it possible to export North American wheat to Western Europe, displacing wheat from Eastern Europe. Second, policy changes like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the trade agreements embodying the World Trade Organization (WTO) reduce or eliminate costly barriers to trade and lead to its expansion.
 
The grain example helps show why trade creates winners and losers. The Midwest U.S. and Canadian Prairie provinces are a gigantic breadbasket made possible by low population density, which implies abundant land and scarce labor. Expanding trade gave these farmers new markets and higher incomes. In much more densely populated Europe, the reverse is true: labor is abundant and land is scarce. As a result, expanding trade in grains meant more import competition and lower income for European farmers..
Fast forward to today and we can ask what U.S. factor endowments are currently. As a rich country internationally, the United States is necessarily a capital abundant country. As a comparatively low population density country, it is land abundant but labor scarce. The answer is to our initial question is then quite clear: expanding trade is harmful to U.S. workers because imports of labor-intensive products and services from abroad create competition for American workers, reducing their real wages. As I have discussed before, U.S. real wages have remained below their peak for 39 straight years, just as the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem would predict.
 
What about all the cheap goods we now buy at Wal-Mart? It doesn’t change this story at all, because the lower price of imported goods is already reflected in the inflation rate we use to calculate real wages.
Rogowski’s book also argues that we can expect certain pattens of political coalitions to form, with the winners from trade on one side and the losers on the other. NAFTA illustrated this well, with capital and agriculture generally in favor of the agreement (minus a few small specialty agricultural products like oranges), while labor was strongly opposed. And of course, this only helps us understand economic reasons for support or opposition to trade agreements; for non-economic reasons such as the environment, we have to look elsewhere. Although beyond the scope of this post, Rogowski’s analysis of the entire world through phases of rising and falling trade (i.e., the Great Depression) lends strong credence to his claims. You should definitely read his book sometime.
 
Economists are divided over how big this effect is. In the 1990s, when I first started teaching, the most common view of economists was that technological change was the driver increasing the premium for high skilled labor while reducing wages for low-skilled labor. Adrian Wood’s 1994 book, North-South Trade, Employment, and Inequality, argued that trade was in fact the main culprit, (a good, ungated analysis is Richard Freeman’s “Are Your Wages Set in Beijing?”). Although this met with a lot of resistance at the time, Wood’s view has gained a lot of traction among economists based on developments over the last 15 or so years. Paul Krugman, a particularly noteworthy example due to his Nobel prize, has gone from being a fanatic adherent of free trade to someone who sees trade as a big problem, though even today he is not quite willing to pull the plug on free trade.
 
One important point Rogowski makes (and Stolper and Samuelson did before him) is that the theory of comparative advantage tells us that the winners from trade gain more than the losers lose, which makes it possible in principle to compensate the losers and have everyone be better off. But he also argued that those who benefit economically from trade will see their political power increase, something that has certainly been borne out in the United States in the more than 20 years since his book was published. This makes it less likely that such compensation will occur, and we certainly haven’t seen any policy in the U.S. that comes close to making everyone better off as a result of trade.
 
One small bit of comfort comes from Paul Krugman’s book The Conscience of a Liberal (pp. 262-3). He provides us some reason to think that the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem isn’t necessarily destiny, as he shows that the United State and Canada, two countries with the same factor endowments as each other, have distinctive differences in political outcomes, particularly with regard to unionization rates.
Overall, unfortunately, it looks like the answer to today’s question is clear: freer trade has harmed, and is harming, the American middle class. But globalization is more than trade, and I will continue to analyze other elements of globalization in my next few posts.

crosposted with

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