Opinion

The Great Debate

An unstable global economic system that is being ignored

Today, the International Monetary Fund announced yet another a reduction in its global growth projections for 2014, with its estimate of U.S. growth also reduced (citing reduced government spending, but not the present U.S. government shutdown — or the heretofore unthinkable notion of the U.S. government defaulting on its obligations). Despite the seeming urgency of global economic slowdown, when world leaders attended their annual fall confabulation at the United Nations in New York last month, they focused on the diplomacy of physical security (Syria, Iran, etc.). Thus another year has passed in which global economic security issues were on no one’s reported agenda.

Policy makers continue to fail to appreciate that the most formidable economic challenge today lies in the area outside the borders of any one nation or region — and that multilateral action to address this challenge is arguably more important than efforts at increasingly less-effective internal stimulus.

Present-day economic imbalances — particularly those stemming from the rapid emergence of the post-socialist nations over the past 15 years, with their associated supply of excess labor, productive capacity and global capital, relative to demand — have hamstrung the economies of the advanced nations. Such economic dislocation can no longer be resolved by any one power, or even by two or three. Indeed, there is enormous risk today of unilateral or bilateral actions being viewed by players left out of such actions as economically threatening or even hostile, leading to economic countermeasures. The issue is compounded by the complexity of the relationships among and between developed nations on the one hand and emerging ones on the other. It is hard to imagine moving beyond a global economy that is just getting by, and therefore at material risk of new and deeper crisis, without a more open dialogue among the Group of 20 (G20) nations and proactive steps toward mutual accommodation.

Yet, since the central banks of the developed world have managed to more-or-less stabilize their economies — however tenuously — discussion of a global grand bargain focused on rebalancing international trade and finance has been all but absent. This is unfortunate, as it makes it unlikely that the advanced nations will be able to return to their potential growth trajectories for some time to come.

There is, nevertheless, enormous common interest if nations can find the right way to open a dialogue with one another. Both surplus and debtor nations have so far understood that it is to no one’s benefit to attempt to aggressively advance their singular interests at the expense of their trading partners. We’re all in this together, our interests are intertwined in a flat world, and we’re dealing with more economic interdependence than ever before. And thus far, at least, we have mostly avoided the “beggar thy neighbor” strategies that went awry in previous slumps, either out of wisdom or good fortune of their ineffectiveness. That said, we are a long way from a harmonious, cooperative global trading environment.

Rebuilding America’s high-wage economy

Good for President Barack Obama for emphasizing the need to restore America’s middle class. However, the actual proposals in his new summer offensive would not go very far toward that worthy goal.

America is moving, at an accelerating pace, toward an economy with tens of millions of poorly paid service jobs at one end, and a relatively small number of astronomically compensated financial jobs at the other. In between the fast food workers, who demonstrated this week for a living wage, and the hedge fund billionaires is a new creative class heavily based on the Internet. But the web entrepreneurs are too narrow a segment on which to rebuild a broad middle class.

For a quarter-century after World War Two, America was a far more equal society — with jobs that paid a “family wage” on a single paycheck. One question dividing economists now is whether the more equal, high-wage economy of the postwar era is irrevocably gone with the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Or whether a service economy can become an egalitarian one with a different set of policies.

Obama’s Plan: One Nation, Under Government

You’ve probably read that the series of speeches President Barack Obama started giving Wednesday are a “pivot” to the economy designed to rev things up. Well, they’re not. Obama’s speeches will be no less than the manifesto of a leftist president who plans to spend his remaining time in office installing as much of his big government “project” as possible by whatever means he can get away with.

If you got the wrong message, it’s because Washington reporters too often have a poor understanding of people who have a systematic philosophy and truly believe in what they are doing. Reporters,  focused on who is up this day and who’s down the next, have difficulty discerning the intent of someone like Obama — who is thinking much more long term.

Obama, with his speeches, is intent on laying out the rationale and building public support for “fundamentally transforming America” — as he promised five days before being elected in 2008.

One big reason for GOP optimism

There are 25 reasons for Republican optimism in the wake of a disappointing November. Twenty-five is the number of states next year where Republicans will have unified control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature. Up from the current 24.

The significance of this is already clear in Michigan — where state lawmakers are seeking to make it the nation’s 24th right-to-work state.

Governor Rick Snyder announced Tuesday that right-to-work will be on the docket during the Michigan legislature’s lame duck session this month.

The economy needs a ‘unity Cabinet’

The election left us with a status quo political lineup, one that failed to make any meaningful fiscal progress over the past two years. So is it realistic to expect that we can avoid the fiscal cliff and achieve some sort of “grand bargain”? Yes, it is possible, and here is how to do it:

First, President Barack Obama should form a “unity Cabinet” to demonstrate to the public and Congress that he wants to bring the nation together and accelerate progress on key challenges. It should include Democrats, Republicans and independents. All should be respected in both parties, have meaningful private-sector experience and credibility within and outside the Washington Beltway.

These criteria are especially critical when it comes to the president’s top economic team. Obama will almost certainly change the leadership at the Treasury Department, since Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has talked about leaving after the first term, and the Office of Management and Budget. Smart appointments could help reboot Obama’s relationships with Congress and increase the chance of success.

The real winner: Inflation

I buy none of the post-election, prime-time hokum that what decided the presidential race was the Latino vote, women’s issues, the next Supreme Court justices, the view from the fiscal cliff or how drones are winning the War on Terror. This presidential election was, as always, a contest between gold standardists and inflationists.

The victors were the forces of cheap money. William Jennings Bryan would be proud ‑ as would bimetalists and Weimar Republicans.

Inflation won because it is the panacea for all that ails the body politic: a short-term cure-all that promises economic growth, the possibility of paying off runaway national and international debts, new-found prosperity for the middle classes and liquidity for the impoverished, who otherwise would be voting in the streets with rocks and burning tires.

Key fiscal questions nominees must answer

 

We can only hope the final presidential debate Monday provides less heat and more light than the previous two. Especially with regard to fiscal matters, the debates have so far not provided the substance and solutions that voters need and deserve to hear.

Our nation’s escalating deficits and debt represent the biggest threat to our national security, as I said in early 2007. Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said much the same in 2010. So the topic of the third debate, foreign policy and national security, needs to include a frank discussion of fiscal issues.

For, as our economy weakens, so does our position in the world. It will eventually compromise both our national security and domestic tranquility if not effectively addressed. Both our allies and adversaries recognize this, and we need to take action.

What women want is political key

No matter how artificial and canned the candidates can seem at a presidential debate, no matter how competent or ineffectual the moderator — the nominee’s true self will peak out at some point.

Thus did GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tip his hand when it comes to the all-important female vote — which both he and President Barack Obama have been scrambling after. He didn’t make a huge gaffe or get ensnared in a tough debate about choice. Moving around the stage, he seemed a 1950s throwback who had wandered in from a different decade — one where men were men, women wore shirtwaist dresses (Ann Romney’s uniform) and marriage was between a man and a woman.

Of course what drove this home was Romney’s anecdote about trying to find talented women for his staff when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007. He said he actually went to a number of women’s groups “and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Though he apparently flipped this story: The groups came to him unsolicited.

First Gilded Age yielded to Progessives, can today’s?

 

C.K.G. Billings, a Gilded Age plutocrat, rented the grand ballroom of the celebrated restaurant Sherry's for an elaborate dinner on March 28, 1903. He had the floor covered with turf so that he and his 36 guests could sit on their horses, which had been taken up to the fourth-floor ballroom by elevator.

Mark Twain labeled the late 19th century the Gilded Age – its glittering surface masking the rot within. This term applies today for the same reasons: The rich get richer; most everyone else gets poorer. And the public thinks corruption rules.

New technologies similarly transformed the economy in that era and boosted productivity even as life for many Americans grew worse. Bloated tycoons? Desperate workers? A threatened middle class? Poverty amid the sweeping progress? Check, check, check and check.

But the silver lining of our current Gilded Age redux is that we left this stunning income inequality behind once. We can do it again. Americans eventually escaped the Gilded Age because they also made it a period of reform that ushered in the Progressive Era.

Who knew jobs data could be so exciting?

The September jobs report ignited a firestorm when Jack Welch, former General Electric chief executive officer and Reuters contributor, asserted (or implied, or wondered if) the unemployment rate had been politically doctored to give President Barack Obama an electoral advantage. After all, how can the unemployment rate drop a full 0.3 percentage points to 7.8 percent when the economy is creating only 114,000 jobs?

More on that later. First, let’s dismiss the notion that the integrity of the data-collection process was undermined. Anyone at all familiar with the production of federal economic statistics – at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Federal Reserve, or elsewhere – can appreciate the firewalls that exist between the professional collection, analysis and publication of economic data and the remainder of the agencies’ missions – especially their political appointees. It is unfathomable that these would be breached.

It is even more unfathomable that they would be breached without the career civil servants getting on the telephone to, say, Reuters and reporting the political manipulation within a nanosecond of it occurring. And still more unfathomable that such a breach would be initiated and covered up successfully, while only lowering the rate to 7.8 percent. Why not 6.8?

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