Archive for the ‘economy’ category

The French Message

April 24, 2017

Yesterday France held the first step in electing its next President. In the French system all candidates run in round 1 and if one candidate receives more that 50% of the votes, that person becomes President. If not there is a round 2 between the two top finishers. The results were: the top finisher Emmanuel Macron, about 24% and Marine Le Pen, about 21%. Said differently, a centrist, not aligned with either of the two major parties and a far right (formerly fringe) candidate will meet in the run-off.

Macron, is a new comer who has never held a major elected position, garnered more votes than all the other 10 candidates. Early pundit predictions say Macron should win the run-off and become France’s next President. Le Pen, however, has been attempting to steer her far right party back towards the middle and may take advantage of unexpected events over the next month.

So what should Americans take as the message from this election?

For France, jobs and border security were key concerns of the electorate. As in America, jobs are a spotty issue. For those unemployed, it is a big deal while those with jobs don’t see the urgency.

Le Pen cites globalism (France First) as the unemployment problem’s root. For Le Pen the answer is leaving the EU and enacting protectionist measures. Macron, on the other hand, sees the world as global and that France must become more competitive in order to lower unemployment.

Border security is another matter. Le Pen used this term to explicitly call for restriction on Muslims including deportation of French Muslim citizens (two passport holders) under certain situations. Le Pen also paints these mainly North African Muslim immigrants as job takers and social services sponges. Macron is relatively silent on this issue reflecting the majority of French citizens (live and let live) attitudes.

France, population-wise is a bi-modal country with one large, densely populated city (Paris) and all the rest. Paris which most tourist flock to is also the center of banking and business. The rest of France is mainly agrarian and in certain cities home for large factories (like auto and air industries).

France has a strong socialist history featuring today the 35 hour work week and a highly developed set of regulations around work rules (pay, benefits, transfer, lay-offs, and firing). In short, it is easier (and often less costly) for a French company to not hire when demand increases. Consequently, even when times are good, one should expect less hiring in France.  The French social contract is well appreciated by French citizens and proposals to change it present a large challenge.

Blaming the EU misses entirely the point and returning France to the French franc will only acerbate the economic situation (where will investment come from?) and open the door for economic policies convenient to the ruling party but ruinous to the country.

So what are the messages relevant to the US?

  • Muslim baiting is not a sure winner. North Africans and other Muslims have had a difficult time fitting into French society.  They look and act differently than the traditional French population. It is true that unemployment and economic distress are higher amongst these Muslim groups but connecting these residents to the overall French malaise is not self evident. (Hmmm, do you think undocumented US residents from Mexico have anything to do with the employment rate in the coal industry?)
  • Jobs is a complicated subject. The idea that closing borders will increase employment is a tough sell (what about exports or reprisals from other countries?). Proposals to increase specific sectors present risk to other sectors. French citizens realize this. (Hmmm, do you think rhetoric will return jobs to the coal mining industry, or tax cuts for the wealthy will translate into lower unemployment?)
  • Voters lack confidence in their legislators. The rejection of the left and right traditional national parties confirms the lack of confidence that traditional leaders can improve the overall French life. (What do Americans think of a Congress which has voted almost 50 times to repeal Obamacare and cannot agree now on what to replace Obamacare with, even though Republicans have control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency?)

One must be careful to not read too much into the French first round election results. French voters have traditionally been volatile people living amongst general apathy. At this point, the French seem to have acted prudently.

Vive La France.

The Jobs Promise

April 17, 2017

President Trump campaigned on the promise to make America great again and a key step was creating lots of great jobs. As these words rolled off Trump’s tongue, one would have thought jobs would be growing on trees when Spring arrived. Hmmm.

As the 100 day mark approaches, a period far to short to measure President Trump’s jobs performance, all that can be said is that the Trump Administration has done nothing to change the former President Obama’s job creation momentum. Frankly this should not be a surprise and President Trump’s ultimate performance is an event for the future.

Most everyone has heard (and seen) the President’s strong arm on the auto industry as well as other American manufacturers like Carrier Air conditioners. Plenty of “new” jobs have been promised but there has been a deafening silence by these same companies on whether they were promising “net” job increases or just a gross number overlooking job cuts, layoffs, and retirements.

The ironic aspect of Candidate Trump’s jobs promise is his selection for domestic cabinet appointments and his much ballyhooed budget proposal. His cuts to the EPA, FDA, Lobor, Energy, and Commerce will (if enacted in the budget) be a real jobs killer, especially when one considers the zealous nature these new Cabinet heads are bringing to the job. To be sure beefing up Homeland Security will add some jobs but the net impact appears to be significant jobs decrease.

President Trump’s ace in the hole has been his infrastructure proposal. A robust infrastructure investment would certainly mean a lot of new jobs, both direct and indirect in support of those working directly on infrastructure activities. Trump’s challenge will be how to get a reluctant Republican conservative faction to go along with his plan.

To understand President Trump’s quandary, one has to understand who are really his constituents. Let’s begin with the unavoidable truth that President Trump’s most important supporters are not voters like the coal miners or the out of work/under employed rust belt workers either. The people who moved heaven and hell for the Republican majority are deep pocketed conservative and libertarian Americans. It is with their money, filtered through an alphabet of foundations, charities, and 401 c (4)’s which turn these charitable donations into ammunition for faceless operatives who in turn destroy the political careers of anyone who does not vote the way this dark money wishes. (Read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer for a fuller accounting.)

So, why wouldn’t these moneyed interests not also want infrastructure work?

The very best one could say is that these rich interests are agnostic about infrastructure work, providing they do not have to pick up the bill. From an ideological argument perspective, dark money participants do not want the debt expanded. So the question is how to pay for this trillion dollar investment?  Hmmm.

President Trump’s path forward, however, must be as cynical as these rich people. This group seeks less regulations so that their business interests can make greater profits, and they want lower tax rates so that they can keep more of their businesses’ profits.  Accordingly, these dark money leaders approve of Trump’s draft budget and the aggressive roll back of regulations.

These wealthy people speak glowingly about America and the American dream but at the end of the day its about how they personally can make more money and keep more of it by paying less taxes. To be perfectly clear, this large donors care not a dime about average Americans or anything that even hints at fairness. The most important issue, morning, noon, or night is freeing their businesses from government rules and regulations and lowering the tax bill.

President Trump, if he is perceptive, will realize that if he pushes through tax “reform” and delivers for the top 1/2 of 1% wealthiest earners, these greedy interests will lose interest in the rest of the President’s agenda.  The infrastructure initiative which could create lots of new jobs will be last year’s fashion.  The President will suddenly find no friends in Congress where each Republican Congress member will worry more about reelection than doing their job.

The “jobs promise” was a cruel trick to play on voters.  The dark money behind financing the election wants less regulations to make more money, not to create new jobs. The dark money wants smaller government in order to pave the way for their businesses to operate without oversight or burdensome (in their opinion) rules.

Why?

Greed is just that. Greed consumes and often consumes so much that the greedy person does not see it consuming themselves. A lot of voters are expecting a much more dynamic labor market and are very likely to be disappointed.

In time, the dark money trail of revoked regulations leading back to the prime sources will be documented and reveal the unpleasant fact that certain wealthy persons and their businesses were never interested in creating more jobs, just making more money for themselves.  IMO, the grass roots disappointment and disgust could become so big that by 2020 voters throw out this GOP set of bums and give the reins of government to the bums of the other party.

Trump Meets China

April 2, 2017

President Trump will meet President Xi next week at Mar A Lago, the Florida White House. There will be no loss for topics both sides wish to discuss but almost assuredly the two lists will not include the same items. Maybe they will alternate. Hmmm.

President Trump seems set upon trade issues and steering the “free trade” towards “fair trade”. While this is a worthy objective (assuming that the President was at all interested in anything other than politics, like satisfying 2020 campaign bench marks), free and fair trade are very complex issues. What is fair to one side may be quite the opposite to the other side.

Most likely the upcoming visit will conclude with more of the phrases we have gotten use to… “Two nations pledge to work together on areas of mutual interest…” Hmmm.

China represents a clear picture of globalization and what outsourcing looks like.  Globalization has brought blessings and cruel dislocations in the same breath.

In the 80’s China began to stir. Adopting a more cooperative and welcoming attitude, China invited a few Western companies into their midst assigning them preferential business licenses. China provided space, people, and infrastructure support. The incoming companies provided manufacturing know-how and the promise of large markets overseas. Most of these new comers were American companies and with them came “outsourced” American manufacturing jobs.

On a macro scale, this arrangement seemed ordained in heaven. China got steady work for its peasant class, thereby raising the “lucky” peasant’s standard of living. With increasing volume, China (the Government) got hard currency generated by the sale of goods overseas.  And, of course, a lot of wealthy Chinese became even wealthier.

For the job exporting country (for example, the US), companies were able to offer for sale goods which cost considerably less than if had manufactured these goods been manufactured using American labor. This translated into lower selling prices, greater profits, or both.

For America (the Government), inflation slowed to a crawl. For American businesses, the way was clear to hold down wage and salary increases (because there was no upward inflation pressure).   And even better, the increased productivity could go in greater proportions to top executives and share holders. Hmmm.

So when we hear rhetoric promising to bring back to America manufacturing jobs, one must realize that the “forced” repatriated jobs will drive up the prices Americans pay (this is called inflation).  Worse, there is no reason to believe the returned jobs will pay anything more than minimum wages.  Hmmm.

There is nothing wrong with more jobs for Americans and if free enterprise were alive and well, the shift of jobs from China to the US would be cost/quality driven. (Most Americans would reject more expensive or lower quality goods.)

I wonder whether the Trump Administration will think about closing the barn door, once the lost jobs are back in the barn. Europe deals with “fleeing jobs” by making it costly for companies to simply lay people off.

Hmmm, maybe not.

Negotiating 101

March 18, 2017

In 1973, Robert J Ringer, wrote a book titled “Winning Through Intimidation”, a self help book describing ways to be more successful in the art of selling. For someone who approached business as a “tell it as it is, win-win” person, Ringer’s examples were eye opening. The picture Ringer painted of unsavory, but successful characters one would have to deal with in the business world was shocking. Why would anyone waste their time dealing with intimidators and not prefer honest brokers? Hmmm.

President Trump (and his senior advisors) are giving Americans a refresher “Winning Through Intimidation” course. For the Trump Administration, there appear to be no limits on veracity and no retreat from prima facia falsehoods. Yet, four of Trump’s favorite words are “believe me, it’s true”.

Trump’s budget proposal is a clear example of a 21st century negotiation using 1970’s tactics. (I have carefully avoided using the word “strategy” because at this point there are no indications of what the Trump Administration’s objectives and strategies might be.) Trump’s “Winning Through Intimidation” tactic opens with proposed draconian cuts in order to boost Defense and Homeland security spending.

For example, the President has proposed increasing the defense budget about 10%, and offsetting those costs by decreasing a host of Federal programs (including support for science, the arts, and poverty programs). Budget cuts are also to include 30% decreases to the State Department and EPA’s budgets. What is the President thinking?

The President must privately realize that the “mess” he inherited is not former President Obama’s mess. Congress, and more specifically the fundamental division among Republicans, has produced a deadlock and Congress is incapable of making budgetary decisions. The more conservative Republican elements seem ready to throw the baby out with the bath water if that would reduce the size of government.

Medicare and Medicaid make up the largest drivers in both size of government and the deficit components. Although, healthcare reforms similar to healthcare systems in two dozen other “best in class” foreign countries, where effort is put into cost control (doctors, hospitals, and drug companies), and where the waste associated with “for profit” insurance administrators is eliminated, could dramatically reduce healthcare costs, lower the size of government, and in the process secure the benefits of Medicare and Medicaid for years to come. Why no mention of these expenditures yet?

So, let’s speculate.

The President and his advisors want tax reform (read tax cuts for the wealthy) and want a second term. They connect both of these with more jobs and a growing economy. Unfortunately, more jobs (if ever possible) and growth will take time. What can the Trump White House do in the interim to keep his faithful supporters quiet? Hmmm.

Let’s make the EPA and other regulatory agencies the “bad guys”. Let’s debunk science and focus short term on job promises. Let’s emphasize “America First” in a world where an isolationist retreat will stall the economy (but most voters don’t understand that), and buy time.

Inconveniently for President Trump, Republicans have made a “do or die” issue out of repeal and replace Obamacare. President Trump and his advisors realize that a replacement is politically near impossible. They realize there is no way “replace” can happen (60 votes in Senate) with drastic cuts in healthcare benefits or increasing the national debt (which is politically toxic amongst most Republicans). Hmmm.

President Trump is cleverly drawing Republican leadership further out on the “replace” limb knowing that an option acceptable to moderates will be unacceptable to conservatives and vice versa. At some opportune time in the near future, President Trump will inform Republican Congressional leaders that he is about to cut them loose and walk away from their plan because it’s wrong for the people. Of course, Congress could support an Obama-Lite alternative, keep his support, and move onto tax reform which could garner enough support to pass (at the end of the day, all Congress members like to tell their constituents they voted for lower taxes).

President Trump will show Congress members how lower taxes will stimulate the economy and generate new tax revenue, even at lower marginal rates, thereby not increasing the debt. While factually this is extremely unlikely, too many voters will believe it to justify a Congress member taking the chance of going against the President. Hmmm.

“Winning Through Intimidation” will become a must read during the Trump Administration. The Republican Party is a misnomer and will eventually break apart. Unfortunately, during the next four years a lot of unwise actions could take place.

Keep your eyes open and double check what ever you hears. There is a new sheriff in town.

With Democracy, You Often Get What You Asked For

January 20, 2017

Donald J Trump is the 45th President of the United States. The transfer of power from former President Obama to President Trump has gone smoothly as it has 44 times before. What lies ahead, however, has not been scripted.

Giddy Republicans on Capital Hill can’t wait to begin passing conservative legislation rolling back much of what President Obama prevented during the past 8 years. And, President Trump tells American to “fasten your seat belts” because he plans to make America great again… fast. Hmmm.

A question; was Trump’s election the voice of America’s democracy speaking? Hmmm.

Donald Trump was elected with less votes than Hillary Clinton received. His electoral college victory was the 48th largest, meaning almost all other winning Presidents received more electoral college votes. So any talk of a landslide victory or a national mandate is simply misinformation, and a dangerously wrong interpretation of the election results.

Congressional Republican leaders are fond of the term “Americans have spoken”. The implication, of course, is that the GOP is free to make huge changes in policy in response to an alleged ground swell of American opinion. It is true “some” Americans favor Republican policies. It is also true that almost half of voters have swallowed the red meat baited hooks cast out by GOP operatives. Repeal and replace, renegotiate NAFTA, renegotiate the Paris climate agreement, renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, put tariffs on all imported cars, enact a huge tax cut, and eliminate the threat of ISIS to name a few.

American democracy does grant the right to the winning party to enact legislation of its choice. American Democracy grants broad latitude to the chief executive and executive orders can impact all Americans in both predictable and unpredictable ways. So, keeping the campaign pledges voters heard is possible if not likely.

What American Democracy can’t change or escape is that actions have consequences.

What may seem a marvelous gift to some may be to others a hurtful event. What may benefit certain parts of the economy may be an unwanted or damaging force for other parts. Changes in America’s foreign policies or trade practices may appear to benefit some parts of the American economy but can produce pain in other parts. And, who can be against economic growth? Consider what may happen if the growth is unevenly distributed (rich get richer) or the cost of living sky rockets and the social safety net has already been removed (as promised)?

There are no crystal balls to my knowledge that can tell us how the next four years will play out. There seem to be a large number of highly predictable consequences to proposed Republican and Trump policies. On top of that, what consequences may emerge changing so many policies at the same time are unknown.

What is not a mystery is that comedians, song writers, and journalist should have a field day with the hypocrisy, threats, and outright mistakes the GOP and the Trump Administration may bring upon itself.

Policy Or Ethics?

January 19, 2017

As each of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks get their day in the sunshine before Senate Committees, the recurring questions before these committees involve the nominee’s policy direction and personal ethics.  Is the nominee free of obvious conflicts and conflicts of interest? And, what direction (what policies) would the nominee pursue if confirmed?

With Republicans holding sufficient votes to confirm any and all of Mr Trump’s selections, one wonders what purpose these hearings serve.

The Secretaries of State and Defense seemed qualified, free of conflicts, and ready to perform these important roles. Arguably one could question Rex Tilleson’s qualifications since he has no prior government experience but he was the CEO of the world’s largest corporation and there is a large, in place, civil service State Department staff ready to advise. Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, breezed through her hearing the easiest of all the nominees. Since there is little controversial about Transportation, other than the billions ($$$) an infrastructure renewal program might create, the Senate Committee treated her with kid gloves.

Betsy DeVos, Tom Price, and Scott Pruitt, nominees for Education, Health and Human Services, and the EPA, on the other hand, presented potential red flags. Each of them in prior public statements have strongly rejected current policies and accepted science.

Ms DeVos is an advocate for vouchers, Mr Price has been a harsh critic of the Affordable Care Act, and Mr Pruitt has questioned the validity of global warming.

The questioning of Ms DeVos revealed (IMO) a wholly unqualified nominee who is intent upon championing the use of vouchers to funnel public tax funding to religious schools. Ms DeVos is a self proclaimed evangelical, and who has never herself attended public schools and chose not to send her own children to public schools. This woman has an agenda.

Mr Price will be charged with implementing the “replace” part of “repeal and replace Obamacare”. Why was any time wasted on questioning his stock trades when there is still almost nothing known about what President Trump will ask Secretary Price to implement? While trading stock upon which the Senate is about to vote is unethical, everyone else in Congress seems to have done it.

But the “replace Obamacare” may also lead to “privatize Medicare” and to “block grant Medicaid”. Is Mr Price going to be comfortable leaving millions of Americans either without healthcare coverage, with second class coverage, or just the best coverage money can buy? (If you have no money, you get….)

Mr Pruitt is most likely qualified to run EPA, if only based upon past government experience. Which direction he will lead the EPA will be a matter of Trump Administration policy and it may be wise, neutral, or dangerously flawed. As the nominee, Price will initially be bound to follow existing law.

On ethics, questions have been raised about Pruitt’s close ties to the Oil and Gas Industries where he has championed Industry positions while receiving large campaign donations from these groups. Unethical? Or has everyone else in Congress done the same with donations from other groups?

These confirmation hearings have shed more light upon how far from “advise and consent”, the confirmation process has drifted. With Congress so conflicted with the need to raise obscene amounts of campaign funding, questioning the nominees appears too often like the pot calling the kettle black.

With respect to policy, elections have consequences. Republicans and President-elect Trump won, and now our Country’s governance is in their hands.

  • Vouchers should be a non-starter if only based upon the first Amendment.
  • If the Trump Administration steps back from the less than perfect Obamacare coverage and insures less Americans, or worse attempts to change Medicare or Medicaid, in two and four years voters will fix that mistake.
  • The EPA might represent the most significant trap for the new Administration. Sophisticated deemphasis which skilled politicians like Scott Pruitt can apply to daily EPA activities, over time, can make the Flint, Michigan lead in water tragedy look mild. Voters will also feel this impact, maybe as early as four years.

No one will remember in four years that Betsy DeVos donated $200 million to Republican candidates, or that Tom Price bought and sold stock while deliberating on legislation, or that Scott Pruitt, while taking large donations from the Oil and Gas Industry, sued the EPA over regulation limits targeting those industries.

What Americans will know is whether education has improved or not, whether their healthcare is affordable and adequate, or whether the air, water, and ground are more polluted or less so.

With respect to these nominees, there is no reason that they could not be successful. Success will not be measured, however, how many Republican check list items are accomplished, but rather by the state of life four years from now.

Where Is The Center In Troubled Times?

January 18, 2017

When George W Bush was elected in 2000, Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative”. What could be better, a mix of pragmatism and concern for others? The wealthy smiled as the Bush Administration made a case for two tax cuts. The evangelical community smiled when government policy turned upon science severely limiting stem cell research and linking foreign aid to impoverished countries’ family planning methods.

And the gates were opened for the neoconservative movement, blindly supporting Israel and simultaneously destabilizing the Arab world. Along came the Patriot Act, secret subpoenas, and Justice Department sanctioned torture.  Hmmm. That America’s part of the world tilted strongly to the right and away from the center would be an understatement.

Barack Obama brought into power countervailing tendencies. Science was again respected as evidenced by renewed concerns about global warming, use of data in forming public policy, and research into solar and wind technology. The Obama Administration pointedly worked to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and to close the dark spot on America’s image, the Guantanamo Detention Facility. And, most remarkably, the Obama Administration attempted to bring US healthcare into the realm of other world class, modern industrial countries by passing the Affordable Care Act.

The Republican Party, lead by the Tea Party/Freedom Coalition howled in horror about the reckless race to the left. It was not, however, clear that President Obama was guiding America towards the “center” until Bernie Sanders’s campaign revealed much more progressive goals. For many conservatives, however, President Obama’s policies represented socialism, if not outright communism.  To highlight this, the Republican Party’s complete rejection of Merritt Garland’s Supreme Court nomination underscores GOP rejection of centrist governance.

As the Trump Administration readies itself to take office, the Republican controlled Congress appears like the cat ready to eat the canary. The Republican Congress can’t wait to take the country back and “back” will be well to the right of center.

The unknown, strangely is President-elect Trump. Will he focus upon the ideological right or what ever is needed to stimulate economic growth? Will President Trump trade support for right wing ideas in return for support of his growth initiatives? Or, even worse as some conservatives worry, would a President Trump simply be a Democrat in Republican clothing?

“Regaining The Center” may appear a desirable goal, especially in comparison to the conservative hinterlands Republicans boast as the fruits of taking America back. The GOP possesses enough votes in Congress that Republican initiatives can carry the day. “Regaining the Center” may serve the reader well by putting GOP policies in context as a public reminder that Republicans seek benefits for their wealthiest members, at the expense of the average person.  If there are benefits, these pluses flow incidental to their main purpose.

For now, the GOP and the Trump Administration can do pretty much what they wish. In two years and again in four, voters get to assess Republican stewardship.  As with George W Bush’s Administration whose results were mixed but on the big issues, failures, “Regaining the Center” may sound prophetic.  The center may soon appear much less unsettling for independents to shift left of the Trump Administration without doing a full Bernie Sanders.