On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner
February 5, 2018

The stock market is plummeting, with the Dow losing well over a thousand points in three trading days. What’s at work?

For starters, the market has been rising at a completely unsustainable rate, driven by low interest rates, stock buybacks, high corporate profits, and investor expectations of even dizzier heights. At some point, it had to come down to earth, even with the pro-corporate tax-cuts.

In addition, the declining unemployment rate has been translating into (modest, long-overdue) increases in workers’ wages. This tends to spook markets, not just because bosses don’t like giving workers pay increases (true, but oversimplified), but also because central bankers tend to worry excessively about inflation.

If low unemployment causes workers to command higher pay, and employers don’t take the cost out of profits but pass it along in the form of higher prices, inflation ensues. Projected inflation rates are still very low by historical standards—with global trade, weakened unions, and the gig economy, workers just don’t have that much bargaining power, even at 4 percent unemployment rates.

Even so, investors correctly worry that myopic central bankers will tighten money at the slightest sign of inflation. And tighter money means slower growth and higher returns in the bond market, both of which are bad for stocks. So investors, having enjoyed average gains of more than 20 percent over the past year, head for the exits.

So, is this the big one: the end of a steadily rising bull market in stocks that is now in its ninth year, the second-longest one on record? (If I knew the answer to that, I would not be writing this post; I’d be in the south of France.)

Whether this is a momentary glitch, or the beginning of a long-awaited “correction” in stock prices of 20 percent or more, depends on whether most investors decide to be prudent rather than greedy, or whether a majority of investors think the market will keep going up.

But one thing is clear. Central bankers have an unfortunate habit of needlessly choking off recoveries due to excess inflation phobia. If investors expect central banks to run true to form, the market is likely to keep declining and the great, post-collapse bull market could be over.

Kuttner
February 2, 2018

My friend Tom Edsall wrote a very smart column in The New York Times on Trump’s immigration offer to the Democrats. Edsall quotes a number of political scientists and strategists, but the bottom line is: Take the deal.

Trump is offering to more than double the number of number of young people brought here illegally as children who can qualify for citizenship. In exchange, Democrats must support $25 billion for Trump’s wall, as well as his unsavory demands to limit so-called chain migration and to end the visa lottery.

Why take the deal? Because Trump’s strategy jams the Democrats. If the Dreamers are deported, much of the Hispanic community will blame the Democrats as well as blaming Trump. But conversely, if the number of Dreamers is more than doubled, it splits Trump’s base, especially immigration hard-liners.

Yes, the other elements of the proposed deal are odious, but all of them can be fought another day. For instance, construction of the wall can be suspended, after the Democrats take back Congress. The issue of whether to have a visa lottery, a decidedly secondary issue, can be revisited another day. Likewise the details of which family members legal immigrants can bring in.

Chuck Schumer, who has flatly said no way, should think again. The Democrats should turn the tables on Trump by simply announcing that they will take his deal, in the interest of the Dreamers. Other aspects of immigration policy have been repeatedly revised over the last century, and will continue to be.

Then we will find out if Trump is for real on this—or whether the offer is one more Trump lie.

Meyerson
February 1, 2018

When is a commitment of $1.3 trillion worth precisely zero? When Donald Trump makes it in his State of the Union address.

On Tuesday night, Trump promised that he’d put before Congress a massive investment in infrastructure, to the tune of $1.5 trillion. What he neglected to say was that just $200 billion of that would actually be federal dollars. The balance would be funds that he hoped—if conditions were right, if the wind was from the east, if the weather was sunny and the creek didn’t rise—would come from state and local governments and private investors. That is, from sources the federal government does not control.

Traditionally, the federal government has picked up the lion’s share of infrastructure spending—and since that hasn’t amounted to all that much in recent decades, we have some of the industrialized world’s worst roads, rails, and airports to show for it. State and local governments, which often have limited bonding capacity and which can’t run deficits (unlike the feds), have seldom been able to pick up as much as half the cost of such projects, even during these decades when those projects have been too few and far between.

For a number of months, however, the word in Washington was that Trump’s administration would pony up no more than 20 percent of the trillion dollars it was touting. In the SOTU, however, that trillion magically grew to a trillion and a half, while the federal commitment remained anchored at $200 million, which would come to 13-and-a-third percent of the newly enlarged commitment.

So why stop there? Since the federal share won’t go any higher than that $200 mill, why not pledge a $5 trillion infrastructure project? A $10 trillion project? Once you begin taking credit for projects to be funded (or not) by other people’s money, resulting from other people’s autonomous decisions, there’s a whole lot you can take credit for. Why not take credit not just for the federal tax cut but for state and local tax cuts, too? Trump has gone beyond the doctrine of l’état c’est moi. L’état plus the 50 little états and Lord knows how many cities, counties and private investors—they’re all, as Trump sees them, moi, aussi.

Kuttner
January 31, 2018

In the mid-2000s, Napster had a futuristic slogan: “Own Nothing, Have Everything.” You know, hang out at Starbucks with your laptop and your iPhone, with all the world’s music, and videos, and books, and free information at your fingertips, and no physical stuff to worry about. On the Road, 21st-century style.

Well, the future has arrived faster than many people expected, and millennials are being asked to internalize the Gospel that life has never been sweeter. I may not have a house, as my parents did, but hey, I have to move around a lot anyway, and I don’t have the hassle of furniture and a mortgage. And I may not have a car, but it’s cool and healthy to ride a bike. And I make be bunked up with four roommates, but look at all the people I get to meet. I can pick up and travel, if I can afford a ticket. And with all the great cheap eats, I don’t even need a kitchen. My parents sure got it wrong (and could they please send me a check?).

It’s a great lifestyle, in your 20s, maybe. But what happens when you are 35 and want to have kids? What happens when you are sick of gig jobs and the itinerant life?

Though some millennials may have swallowed this story in order to make a virtue of necessity—nobody likes to be the loser generation—the reality is that millennials are the most downwardly mobile generation since the Great Depression. And I haven’t even mentioned student debt.

Alexa, find me a decently paying job. Oh, Alexa can’t do that.

The progressive politician who becomes the voice of the Screwed Generation, who gives voice to deep and shameful frustrations and stunted dreams, who offers something better, could be the next president.

Meyerson
January 30, 2018

Particularly since Donald Trump’s election, California has claimed the mantle of the nation’s most progressive state. It’s the only sanctuary state out there, the state where there are real restrictions on the extent to which cops can cooperate with ICE. It continues to push the envelope on climate change legislation, and, with New York, has mandated that its minimum wage rise to $15 an hour over the next few years.

But Jonathan Lasner, a very enterprising reporter with the Southern California News Group—a chain of California papers currently being decimated by its private equity owners—has come up with a truly mind-boggling index of the Golden State’s progressivism. Since the Great Recession ended—that is, from 2011 through 2017—fully 59 percent of all new union jobs have been created in California.   

To be sure, that’s a high percentage of a low number. Lasner has combed through the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual state-by-state count of union members, and discovered that union ranks in California grew by 60,000 during those seven years. In the other 49 states combined, they grew by 42,000 members.

Any quantitative comparison of California with other states should have California coming out on top, of course, simply because California has far and away the most residents. But to have more of anything than all the other states combined reflects not just the state’s size, but also its economic and political climate. Unlike Republican-run states, California’s government isn’t enacting policies that shrink unions, while California has also been creating jobs—albeit most of them pretty bad—in huge numbers in recent years.

That, in turn, leads to a more depressing take on California’s union gains: That increase of 60,000 unionized jobs comes to a mere 2.8 percent of the total number of new jobs created in the state since January 2011. Really, it’s a drop in the bucket—but a bigger drop than the other states put together.

Kuttner
January 29, 2018

What happens next with special counsel Robert Mueller and President Trump?

Clearly, White House Counsel Donald McGahn or his associates were the source of the explosive leak that Trump had directed McGahn to fire Mueller, and that McGahn blocked the move by threatening to resign. But why did McGann choose last week to leak the story of an episode that happened last June?

The most obvious explanation is that Trump was again making noises about firing Mueller. If that was the concern, McGahn’s leak worked, with several key Republicans again warning that firing the special counsel is a red line that Trump can’t cross.

Mueller is expected to interview Trump in the next few weeks. That’s a sign that Mueller is close to filing his report. The way this works is that you wait until you have all the goods on the ultimate target from other interviews and investigations, and then you bring in Mr. Big last. If Mueller is ready for Trump, that’s a sign he’s wrapping up.

The report, when filed, is likely to be devastating in its detail. Far more details on Trump’s efforts to kill former FBI Director Comey’s investigation; evidence of complicity by Trump’s family and perhaps by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and possibly by Vice President Pence; lots more detail on how Russian money has been propping up a failing Trump real-estate empire for more than a decade, and detail on what the Russians expected and got in return.

In short, more than enough to impeach Trump.

And then, House and Senate Republicans will go into a huddle and decide whether it’s time for him to go—whether to advise him to resign in exchange for a deal with Mueller, perhaps sparing his family.

Republican leaders will likely be split on this. Throwing Trump under the bus will infuriate his hard-core base. But keeping Trump in the face of overwhelming evidence of impeachable offenses will make the 2018 elections a cakewalk for Democrats.

And one more complication: If Vice President Pence is implicated, then both men might have to resign or be impeached. And that creates an intriguing set of choices for one Paul Ryan, House Speaker—and next in line for the presidency.

Does this beat Game of Thrones, or what?

Kuttner
January 26, 2018

What is Trump up to, with his take-it-or-leave-it immigration offer?

For starters, he and his ultra-nationalist domestic policy adviser, Steve Miller, are continuing to play to Trump’s hard-core base. Second, Trump is trying to demonstrate that he’s the boss here.

There are several problems, however.

First, there is no such thing as a take-it-of-leave-it demand in politics. This may work as a ploy when you are negotiating a real-estate deal and you hold most of the cards.

But in politics, negotiations continue and all offers or demands are provisional. Also, Trump's own party in Congress is a major participant in this particular negotiation, and is tired of Trump’s games.

Second, by tying a liberal stance on immigrants currently protected by DACA—Trump would give them and others a path to citizenship—to really nasty crackdowns on other immigrants, Trump manages to alienate both his own base and Republican moderates who support DACA and who want a solution. Breitbart, voice of white nationalism, has taken to calling Trump Amnesty Don.

What’s the end game? It’s very likely the same one that has been on the table for months. The Dreamers get to stay. Trump gets a modified version of his wall, only some of which is a literal Berlin-style wall. And there is a toughening, details to be worked out, of policies on “chain migration” which allows legal migrants to bring in family members such as parents. The visa lottery probably goes.

This is the kind of deal for which there has been majority support in the Senate all along. And even the House, which is more hard-line, Republican members are aware that public support for the DACA Dreamers is immense—upwards of 80 percent—and many members in swing districts will be looking toward protecting their own hides on Election Day.

On the Democratic side, a great deal of the grass roots energy that is producing an expected blue wave election is coming from grass roots progressives—for whom a permanent DACA is non-negotiable. After being double-crossed last time, Democrats in the Senate will be determined not to be rolled, and will be tough negotiators.

There will be a legislative package presented to the president. Will he veto it out of spite? His own party sure doesn’t want that.

Over to you, Amnesty Don.

Meyerson
January 25, 2018

The administration’s decision this week to place a 30 percent tariff on imports of solar panels has drawn a predictable backlash from a range of critics, including the companies that install solar panels and the disciples of corporate free trade. Among the latter are a number of congressional Republicans and right-wing think tanks, which have suddenly risen to the defense of the solar installers. The Heritage Foundation, as an article in today’s Washington Post points out, has opposed tax credits for solar installation, but has now aligned itself with the installers. As Heritage and the GOP legislators see it, whatever the market does must be right, even though there is nothing market-oriented about the Chinese government’s massive subsidies to its solar manufacturers, which has enabled China to dump huge numbers of solar panels on the U.S. market, thereby driving many American manufacturers out of business.

The belief that laissez-faire economics is invariably good for you also flies in the face of the reality that every nation provides financial assistance to its industries, through their provision of infrastructure, trained workers, purchasing, and direct subsidies. As Lou Uchitelle demonstrated in his book Manufacturing Matters, which I reviewed in the current issue of the Prospect, America’s federal, state, and local governments regularly provide about 20 percent of the funding for U.S. manufacturers. The contest that hundreds of cities have engaged in to woo Amazon with tax breaks and subsidies, curiously, hasn’t drawn much conservative ire. According to conservative doctrine, it’s OK for cities to woo businesses with financial rewards, but not okay for the federal government to do that. If the feds do it, that’s industrial policy. Horrors!

The United States was once the world leader in manufacturing solar panels, a position it relinquished almost entirely due to China’s aggressive mercantilism. American finance and their defenders in the media have responded to such developments with aggressive indifference, or worse, which is a major reason why much of American industry has been hollowed out. At some point, the hedge funds and private equity firms that increasingly own American newspapers may realize that editorials decrying government intervention to assist U.S. manufacturing could be written more cheaply by editorial writers in Beijing, or better yet, just reprinted from China’s People’s Daily. If they can make more money eviscerating American manufacturing, why not make more money eviscerating American journalism?

Kuttner
January 24, 2018

It is appalling how misleading is the mainstream press coverage of trade issues. Virtually all mainstream writers have imbibed the conventional wisdom that there is a simple divide between something called “free trade” and something disparaged as “protectionism.” Free trade, good; protectionism, bad.

But how do you proceed when another country is clearly protecting its home markets and its exports—by subsidizing their manufacture and selling them below the cost of production—at the expense of competitors who really do practice free trade by letting the free market set prices?

Do you just roll over and lose your industry? Trade law and common sense says you retaliate, to level the playing field.

Somehow, however, that distinction has escaped The New York Times, which thinks (along with most economists) that resisting someone else’s flagrant protectionism is itself protectionist.

Here is the offending article from Tuesday’s Times. I’ve bolded the misleading or mistaken use of language:

WASHINGTON — President Trump slapped steep tariffs on imports of washing machines and solar energy cells and panels on Monday, the first major step by the administration to erect the kind of trade barriers Mr. Trump has frequently said are necessary to protect manufacturers in the United States. …

White House advisers warned that additional trade measures related to steel, aluminum and other products from China could be coming, a signal that Mr. Trump is ratcheting up the protectionist policies he has long espoused as part of his “America First” approach. …

Protectionism was a defining theme of the populist presidential campaign in which Mr. Trump gleefully rebuffed the longstanding Republican embrace of free and open markets.

Now this, to put it politely, is hogwash. In fact, Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s chief trade negotiator, is a veteran of the Reagan administration, the last time the U.S. government was semi-serious about resisting other nations’ protectionism. If they had not done so, Japanese protectionism would have completely taken over U.S. manufacture of semiconductors and steel.

Reagan, of course, was a passionate believer in free markets. But Reagan, unlike the Times, appreciated that protection by other nations is far from a free market.

Meyerson
January 23, 2018

Another year, another Davos, another wildly divergent set of articles on what the super-rich have planned for the rest of us.

Consider the contrasting takes in two news stories today, one in The New York Times, the other in The Washington Post. The contrast is clear even before you read the stories, since they’re expressed in the headlines. “Ahead of Davos, even the 1% are worried about inequality,” reads the headline in the Post. Au contraire, says the Times headline: “Populism is Waning, Which is Reason to Party in Davos.”

Worried? Indifferent? Either way, the Davosites do agree on a common fact: Capital income has been soaring, while wage income has been lagging farther and farther behind. In the United States, that gap has just been pried wider by the GOP’s new tax law. As yet another story in today’s Times documents, the bonuses that Bank of America will pay its employees come to just 5 percent of the savings it will realize this year from the tax cuts. Apple’s bonuses to its workers will come to $300 million; its estimated tax savings this year on just one provision in the new law will come to $40 billion. An S&P Global report says that 75 percent of banks’ reduced taxes will be returned to shareholders through additional buybacks or higher dividends.

So if those Davos Men (and Women, of whom there are fewer) who are concerned about rising inequality are even remotely serious about narrowing the gap between themselves and everyone else, here are a couple ideas they might consider in the intervals between their deal-making and sybaritic pleasures: How about taxing capital at a higher rate than earned income? How about requiring worker representation on corporate boards, at a minimum of half the board seats? How about a new law setting aside a share of capital income to build worker-controlled organizations?

Of course, the Davos intervals between deal-making and sybaritic pleasures can only be measured nanoseconds.

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