Social media and false information

America is suffering from the wide dissemination of misinformation.  The advent of social media on the Internet, such as Facebook, has introduced new means for the rapid and widespread dissemination of potentially deadly lies. Most of us retweeting or “sharing” lies believe them to be true. The motives of those who invent them are another matter.

Determining what information to trust has always been a bit of a challenge but social media has certainly upped the game. “What to do with social media”   “New tools require new rules”

A great deal of attention has focused on Facebook. What should it do to protect us from misinformation and who should set the rules? Facebook is a private platform on which we post our thoughts and pictures or repost information supplied by others. It does not provide content of its own. Facebook’s business model is to attract as many users/viewers as possible and to keep them happy in order to connect them with advertisers selling products that might interest them.

Some have claimed that the Facebook “like” button and other reaction indicators has enabled Facebook to direct posts that are liked or that create a strong reaction to the reacting users, thus creating echo chambers (bubbles) in which people increasingly only hear what they already agree with. If they are viewing misinformation, it risks going unchallenged.   “Must Read on Facebook”  

Without delving (again) into how well or poorly Facebook is doing its job of bringing useful information to its users, I want to address (again) the question of who should be responsible for rejecting and filtering out false information. “Facebook covid misinformation” 

Should it be the government (the Xi, Putin model only with Trump or Biden at the helm), social media themselves (the charming Mark Zuckerberg), or its users (us)?

Anyone who has read more than one of my blogs knows where I stand. America’s greatness derives from the fact that sovereignty in America resides in each individual (us) and we delegate rule making upward (to our family and friends, then our clubs and villages, then our cities and states, then to the Federal government, and finally, on a very limited basis, to the world community) as needed to protect ourselves and our property and to facilitate cooperation and commerce among us. In short, while Facebook and other social media platforms should continue to work at improving their game, the choice of what to believe should rest with each of us.

We should learn from our parents and schools how best to evaluate information and where to look for trustworthy information. The success of American democracy will depend, in part, on how well we each perform this duty. I recommend that you start with the new book by Jonathan Rauch: The Constitution of Knowledge: a defense of truth“Trust”

Econ 101: Inflation –Temporary or Longer Lasting?

Prices of many goods and services have increased in recent months. Are these increases permanent or temporary or will they continue rising in the future? Before exploring those questions, it is important to understand the measures of inflation we are considering. What is the current rate of inflation in the United States? U.S. inflation in September was 3.0% (Compound annual rate of change for Consumer Price Index without food and energy prices over the month of September), or 4.0% (percent change from a year ago) or 5.4% (percent change from a year ago including food and energy prices). What does it mean if this is temporary or long lasting?

If prices remain where they are today after the 5.4% increase from a year ago, inflation going forward would be zero even though the cost of living would be permanently higher. If inflation is long lasting it means that prices will continue to rise for some time (years). What are the factors that influence the future behavior of prices? What should we expect in the U.S.?

The price of a good or service increases when its demand exceeds its supply and similarly for prices in general (when aggregate demand exceeds aggregate supply). As prices are measured in a country’s currency, supplying too much of the currency (generally when the money supply grows more rapidly than the supply of goods and services) causes its value to fall (i.e., prices in the country’s currency to rise).

On the cost side, firms will hire workers and pay them a particular wage (and related benefits) when it adds more to the company’s income than it costs, which includes the cost of the tools they use (capital). Workers will accept a job when its benefits (pecuniary and nonpecuniary) are the best they can find. The inflation expected by the employer and the employee over the period of the wage contract is an important factor in determining what will be offered and what will be accepted.

Because of changes in consumer demands, worker preferences, halving of work visas for immigrants, and supply chain disruptions, labor markets are temporarily in turmoil. September unemployment in the U.S. was 7.674 million while there were 10.4 million job vacancies. Employers are raising wages in an effort to fill those vacancies. As reported by Scott Lincicome: “Goldman Sachs analysts saw a ‘perfect storm of factors that have significantly reduced the supply of workers who are currently looking for jobs at the same time that labor demand—as measured by job openings—has risen to an all-time high.’ This includes… state and federal benefits, early retirements, severely restricted immigration, a switch to self-employment, fear of COVID, and a geographic mismatch between unemployed workers and available jobs. Combined, these factors account for most of the missing workers out there.”  “What if the labor shortage isn’t transitory?”

In short, the labor force has shrunk just as the demand for output is increasing. This excess demand for workers is driving up labor costs and thus pushing up output prices. If the 5 or 6 percent price increase experienced over the present year is expected to be temporary, i.e., if prices are expected to return to their level a year ago, because the supply of labor returns to its pre-pandemic level, wage increases should be temporary as well, falling back to their pre pandemic level and growing thereafter on average with labor productivity plus the 2% inflation target of the central bank once there is full employment and better labor market balance.

More likely, if the inflation is expected to be temporary, i.e., the current 5 to 6 percent inflation stops but prices remain at their increased level, wages will remain at the increased level, but their real (inflation adjusted) value will fall back to their original level. In other words, if these higher prices are expected to be “permanent,” the nominal wage increases now being experienced will not result in any increase in real wages and the worker short fall might remain.

While some of those who withdrew from the labor force will probably return, it is not likely to fully satisfy the demand for various reasons (early retirement, fall in immigration, etc.). Filling (or attempting to fill) the remaining labor shortage will require additional wage increases (unless the public’s demand for goods and services falls–see below). In that case, firms will plan to pass on their higher cost of labor to their customers. If we, the customers, can continue to pay the higher prices, the inflation will continue. Expectations of higher prices and or inflation will be realized.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a sharp fall in output and thus to most people’s incomes. The government provided extraordinary financial support to temporarily fill the resulting income gap. Such support did not increase the output of goods and services or even prevent their decline but rather temporarily redistributed income from those saving it to avoid hunger and defaults on rents, mortgages, and other financial obligations by those who lost it.  “The new covid-19 support bill”  Because personal incomes were substantially maintained while actual output fell, personal savings rates increased dramatically and continue to be well above pre pandemic levels.

The Federal Reserve pitched in by buying up huge amounts of the resulting government debt increasing its balance sheet from $3.5 trillion in February 2020 to $6.3 trillion in August 2021 (measured by the monetary base, M0). This fueled an increase in board money (M3–M0 plus bank deposits and similar liquid assets of the public) from $15.5.0 trillion in February 2020 to $20.8 trillion in August 2021. This increase, though substantial, was significantly less than the increase in M0 (which almost doubled) because the Fed paid interest to banks for keeping the new base money with the Fed (excess reserves) rather than lending it to the public, by paying banks interest on all bank reserves kept with the central bank.

Historical experience is that the public will not be willing to hold these larger amounts of money for ever. They will eventually attempt to spend them down to their traditional (normal) levels, thus adding to aggregate demand for goods and services (and inflationary pressure).

Eventually, the demand for goods and services (aggregate demand) must fall to match real output, or output must rise to match demand. But if the Federal Reserve continues to print money faster than its real value is being inflated away, the inflationary process will continue or accelerate. Similarly, if the government continues to redistribute income from those with a lower propensity to consume (generally higher income families with a higher savings rate) to those with a higher propensity to consume (generally lower income families that save little), aggregate demand will remain excessive perpetuating inflation.

Historically, hyperinflation episodes invariably exploded in the collapse of the currency.  “Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe”  Turkey has come closest to a high inflation “equilibrium.” From the mid 1980s to the end of the 1990s Turkey’s inflation rate varied between 80 and a 120 percent. A high inflation “equilibrium” would be characterized by nominal interest rates and wage rates that fully incorporate the ongoing expected rate of inflation in order to preserve the appropriate real (inflation adjusted) rates. Interest rates in Turkey in this period generally exceeded 100%, as did wage growth.

In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund stated that: “In settings where inflation is rising amid still-subdued employment rates and risks of expectations de-anchoring are becoming concrete, monetary policy may need to be tightened to get ahead of price pressures, even if that delays the employment recovery.” “World Economic Outlook-October 2021

As stands out clearly from the increasingly but unevenly rising inflation in the 1970, the process of increasing inflation is not linear (see the chart above).  As inflation increased, the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy (raised interest rates to slow monetary growth) to slow inflation, causing real output to slow or decline. Policy then eased prematurely, and inflation and the expectation of higher inflation took off again, each time reaching a higher peak (until Paul Volcker stepped on the breaks and ended the game in 1979-80–the exciting year I worked at the Federal Reserve Board).

The Federal Reserve is smarter today than it was in the 1970s and has the tools to prevent the acceleration of inflation and the unhinging of inflation expectation. But the excess money balances and personal saving are very large and the government’s seeming willingness to run up unprecedented deficits create a powerful inflationary head wind. The tightening of monetary policy that will be needed (sooner rather than later in my view) will reduce the Fed’s purchases of Treasury debt and increase interest rates. Higher interest rates will increase government spending for debt service on its very large stock of debt, which will further increase government borrowing and debt or require cuts in spending for other programs. This must be added to the economic challenges of confronting climate change, the continuing recovery and adjustments from the Covid-19 pandemic, the deepening and destructive partisan divide that is stifling Congress, and the growing lack of public trust that drives it.

Whether our current inflation is temporary or longer lasting depends on how quickly and decisively the Federal Reserve tightens monetary policy and how quickly people go back to work. Whether the U.S. economy and the government’s large stock of debt continue to enjoy safe haven status around the world depends heavily on whether our government brings its spending and tax policies under better control.

Who is to blame?

Did you know that the first Covid-19 vaccine shot reduces your body’s ability to produce white blood cells by 50% and the second shot reduces it by an additional 25%? For good measure these shots contain poisonous ingredients as well.  Did you know that “former” President Trump actually won the 2020 election? Or that former President Donald Trump’s grandfather was, “a pimp and tax evader,” and that his father was a member of the KKK. Or that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a ban on motorcycles, and that House speaker Nancy Pelosi was diverting Social Security funding for the Trump impeachment inquiry. None of these claims are true but they were viewed and often believed by millions of Americans, often on Facebook.

Granted that it is often hard to know who or what to believe, many of these claims don’t pass the laugh test (though they are rarely funny). A debate is now underway in the U.S. over whether social media should do more to weed out such lies. (“What to do with social media”) While the best answer to this dilemma probably requires balancing several approaches, I want to focus on our own responsibility vs the government’s to sort out the “truth”. To what extent should we rely on protection by government (forgive me for referring to it as “Big Brother”) or on our own efforts to identify reliable (trusted) sources of information (“Trust”) and to develop the capacity to spot obvious or likely lies.  Where do we want the dividing line between what we do for ourselves and what we want the government to do for us?

Over the years I have defended free speech as the best way to challenge bad ideas. “Do we really need free speech”  So naturally I resist giving the government much of a roll in protecting us from offensive, or “wrong” speech. Controversies over vaccines, facemasks, climate change, oil pipelines, etc. often involve serious claims on each side that are best tested in open debate.  In my view, Facebook and other social media platforms should be free to set their own rules and standards for posts. According to The Economist “Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice-president of policy and global affairs,… pointed out that last year the company removed 30m posts that violated its policies on terrorism and 19m posts that crossed company lines for inciting hatred.” “Facebook flounders in the court of public opinion” Their users can decide whether they agree or disagree with these rules and either stay or opt out of the social platform.

But we have an interest in and responsibility to evaluate the many claims that come our way. We can do a better job of providing our children with the tools for spotting fake or potentially fake information. Along with civics and home economics (how to cook etc.) that are (or should be) taught in high school, students should be taught how to spot and challenge highly improbably statements.

For example, it does not require any medical knowledge at all to spot the vaccine video referred to above as a fake. The medical “expert” who presents her shocking claims is anonymous, as are her credentials and medical affiliations. The vaccine she reports on and claims will kill 20 to 30% of those who take it is unnamed. All the animals it was tested on died, she said. While many of us have lost confidence in the veracity of the information provided by the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control (drugs might be approved too slowly or too quickly, etc.) none of us would (or at least should) believe that they would approve a vaccine with the properties alleged in the video.

I have seen much better produced videos the were totally fabricated stories for reasons I find hard to understand (we shouldn’t blame Russia for everything). One very well done and potentially convincing video claimed that no plane actually crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. Any sensible person should have doubts about claims that are so directly contradicted by pictures and reports to the contrary. But I must admit that my rejection of its big lie was fortified by the fact that at that time I lived next to the Pentagon and saw the damage to the building, and I witnessed the wreckage of the plane laid out for months in the Pentagon parking lot. I also knew a woman who died in that plane.

More could be done by social media platforms to flag potential misinformation, but it should not be censored by the government. We should strengthen our personal capacity to evaluate propaganda but most importantly we need to carefully establish news sources that we trust. Knowing that the Facebooks of the world feed us what they think we like, thus creating an information bubble, we should make the effort to check other sources for their views. We have not flourished as a nation because we turned over our care to the government even if it must provide a critical foundation for our security and interactions. 

Our Right to be Free

Our country was founded and has prospered on the proposition “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We jealously guard our individual liberty. We are free to decide what we want to do and how we want to do it. This liberty is subject to two major conditions: we must live with the consequences of our choices and actions, and our actions cannot interfere with the same exercise of freedom by others. We never fully live up to these high principles, but they do define the goals we continue to and should continue to aim for.

When our actions or circumstance fail to sustain us, we do step in to help those in distress, whether from family obligations or friendships or a government administered social safety net. We continue to debate and refine its features.

Determining the boundary between those actions I am free to choose, and those that unacceptably affect others is not always easy. Walking in public naked is not acceptable in most societies (except at designated nude beaches). While this would not infringe on the freedom of others to behave as they want, it would “force” them to see something they do not want to see.

I chose this example because it does not fall neatly into something purely private that I have a right to do (walking around my home naked) or something clearly and obviously damaging to others that I do not have a right to do (driving my car through my neighbor’s garden).  In the realm of social norms, I can walk in public dressed in many ways depending on the society I am in.  A man might freely walk around in a dress (if he chooses the neighborhood carefully) without getting knocked down in some societies but not in others. Such social norms are important in defining and guiding acceptable public behavior and they vary across societies and over time. Such norms are continuously debated.

But clearly my freedom to swing my fist ends where your face begins. If you are infected with a contagious disease, you do not have the freedom to walk around potentially infecting others even in the most libertarian of societies (e.g., lower Manhattan). I assume that anyone sick with Covid-19 knows that she must isolate/quarantine herself.

But what about someone who doesn’t feel sick but hasn’t been vaccinated?

Any establishment has the right to require that only vaccinated people work or shop there and/or wear face masks. And I certainly have the right to attend only those performances or eat in those restaurants that impose these requirements. These are implications of freedom.

Surely everyone understands and accepts these propositions.  So why is there such controversy over wearing masks and getting vaccinated? I don’t know the answer to this question but will suggest a few factors that I think are important. That such health issues have become so politicized is almost more distressing than the fact that in the United States 728,000 people have died from Covid-19 by October 10, 2021.

One reason is that some people are pushing back on being told what to do by the government. Such behavior is common in freedom loving children but rather unseemly in adults. Another is that vaccines were developed with miraculous speed and their effectiveness and potential side effects are not yet fully known. None the less the evidence is overwhelming that being vaccinated significantly increases your prospects of living and surviving the infection compared to those who are unvaccinated. Another is that during the Trump administration medical policy and advice became quite politicized. Many of us, often with good reason, stopped trusting the messages from the CDC and FDA. And to this day government messaging remains poor. Rather than offering advice based on the most recent evidence (which can change over time) and the reasons for those recommendations, government pronouncements are often confusing and sometimes sound like demands. Many of us have lost trust in the government’s pronouncements. Unfortunately, some people have put their trust in unreliable sources of information and even, in some cases, in deliberately malicious sources (and we can’t always blame Russia). 

Where our choices and actions affect only ourselves, we should be free to do as we like and benefit (or suffer) from the outcome. Where our actions affect others, more or less directly, social norms and government rules should limit our choices. In societies where its citizens live by the golden rule and respect these norms, beneficial behavior is followed voluntarily — enforcement is not a serious problem.  We must determine the sources of information that we trust carefully and based on such information we must treat our neighbors with the respect we expect from them.

Protecting our freedom is critical but it is not enough. We must also exercise it virtuously. The “fusion” of freedom and virtue has been (most of the time) the basis of American success. We seem at risk of losing both. Get vaccinated now for everyone’s benefit. Please.

Chinese and U.S. Models

Many aspects of our respective societies and governments follow different rules and approaches to organizing our communities. We presumably prefer (most of) our choices over theirs and vice versa. In explaining why we prefer ours, we might freely criticize theirs. But we generally have no right to demand that they abandon their approach and adopt ours.

Consider China’s Social Credit System.  In the U.S. we are “well accustomed to credit checks: data brokers such as Experian trace the timely manner in which we pay our debts, giving us a score that’s used by lenders and mortgage providers. We also have social-style scores, and anyone who has shopped online with eBay has a rating on shipping times and communication, while Uber drivers and passengers both rate each other; if your score falls too far, you’re out of luck.

“China’s social credit system expands that idea to all aspects of life, judging citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train — you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket.”  “China social credit system explained”

A good Social Credit score will ease access to loans and other good things. Compared to our approach to collecting information on our likely credit worthiness, the more comprehensive and centrally organized rating is more efficient and comprehensive. But we are very aware of the Chinese Communist Party’s sensitivity to criticism and its potential (if not certainty) for abusing such extensive access to information on our personal behavior. So, we would never allow such a system.

But what about the U.S.’s strong support (and push) for AML/CFT (Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism) laws and procedures?  How do we (how can we) justify that? The U.S. requires that all financial firms collect information about their customers (KYC–Know Your Customer) that facilitates the government’s tracing payments of potentially illegally gained money and it has forced this requirement on all countries using U.S. dollars. The cost of these requirements is enormous. But why follow allegedly illegally gained money when the government can’t prove that it was illegally gained in the first place? If it could, the government should attack the illegal activity at its source. Thus, it claims, but cannot prove, that the money was illegally earned. Not only are AML requirements very expensive but the benefits (identifying criminals) are negligible and morally indefensible. “Operation Choke Point”

The issue of whether to require a so-called vaccination passport to document that the bearer has been vaccinated in order to enter facilities that require such proof, provides another example of a clash between efficiency and convenience and privacy. The pros and cons of such documentation are currently being debated in the U.S.  “vaccine passports”

My point is that each country has its own models for organizing and sharing information and for enforcing its laws.  We have every right, and should, carefully evaluate our own practices. What China chooses to do, is China’s business. Fortunately, we live here.

China and the United States

“Biden describes the China challenge as a global, ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies…. Any event from the pandemic to the Olympics will occasion commentary, particularly in the United States, of who “won,” China or America, and what it means for the epic struggle for global supremacy.” “There is no unified front against China”

I am not sure what it is that we want to win. We don’t seem to mind selling planes and bombs to other autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.). Anything to keep the defense industry’s profits flowing short of yet another war seems a (relatively) good deal. And why might “global supremacy” matter?

Winning things sounds to me like rooting for our own basketball team and cheering when it wins the championship. How do we go about striving to have the best basketball team? First, we recruit the best basketball players we can find and hire the best coach to train them. Everyone must play by the agreed rules, and we win by playing the best game. In short, our efforts go into being the best team possible, not into poisoning the drinking water of the other teams.

But sporting contests are zero sum. One side wins and the other losses. Global cooperation and trade is win–win. The goods we produce and sell (for example) to China, with which to pay for the goods we buy from China make us and China both richer. The citizens of both countries benefit from this exchange. Win–win. Sharing information on the source, nature, and potential cure of a virus (which knows no borders) benefits all of us. Win–win.

The world’s output is maximized when our productive assets (labor and capital) are allocated to their most productive uses globally. That requires that market prices reflect the true productivity and value of each activity. Thus, the world as a whole benefits from rules governing government interferences in market prices and allocations. The World Trade Organization is the forum for agreeing on these rules of fair trade and enforcing them. “Econ 101- Trade in very simple terms”

The airplanes built by Boeing and Airbus benefit from government support of one sort or another. For years they have fought one another over whether this support conformed to fair trade rules. A settlement has finally been reached. “Boeing – Airbus settlement”

Trade restriction in the name of national security, while potentially legitimate, can easily cross the line into wealth reducing protectionism. Does the use of Huawei 5G equipment really threaten U.S. national security or U.S. business interests (protectionism). Some of these cases are hard to call but we must look carefully at narrow business interests in protecting their markets to the detriment of the rest of us. “Huawei ban could crush US aid efforts”

Global supremacy suggests that we would set these rules. To be successful the rules of international trade must be very broadly followed. Thus, their formulation must be a collective undertaking. It is fine for the U.S. to exert influence in setting these rules, but unfortunately, we have a poor record of even following them. We have caused the demise of the WTO dispute resolution body. We have strangely and counterproductively withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was then replaced by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). These set high standards for more open trade that China will hopefully have to meet to join. The self-image of supremacy has corrupted U.S. behavior. Former President Trump’s protectionist tariffs on trade with China, EU, Canada, etc., which President Biden has so far failed to remove, have further reduced U.S. and world income. “Trade protection and corruption”

So, what should our policy be toward China? China has no intention or interest in attacking the United States. They care about their own economies and their own neighborhoods. We should keep our nose and military home to look after our own neighborhood. We should work with China (and Russia and others) to formulate win-win rules for international interactions and behavior. We should apply the mechanisms of the WTO and other international bodies, and diplomacy more generally, to hold China (and others) to the agreed rules. But we must abide by them as well. The rule of law is not just for others.

We should fix the problems in our own economy. We should work to make our domestic rules of commerce fair and efficient so that our economy will be the best in the world. We should work with other countries, including China, to maximize the productivity of their resources because we and everyone else will benefit (win-win).

The United States was founded on principles that have served us well providing a model that the rest of the world would do well to follow. The idea that we should (or can) impose our principles on others rather than provide an example like “a shining city on a hill,” is a violation of those very principles. We have repeatedly failed to uphold those principles, but we keep trying. We must continue trying and must try harder.

Never Again

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on America, many of us are saying “NEVER AGAIN”. What those saying it mean will determine the future of our country.

If “never again” means to you that we will never allow attacks on our homeland again, you are saying that out of your fear you chose safety over liberty. You support the authoritarian, repressive measures of the so-called Patriot Act and the related government intrusions in our privacy and liberties in the name of greater security. This is not the spirit of those Americans who continue to get into their cars to drive to work or wherever despite automobile accidents killing ten times more Americans every year as American soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the past 20 years.

For me and thankfully for many other Americans, it means that we will never again surrender to the fear that blinded us to the tragic mistakes of American aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Uganda. Lawrence Wilkerson explains our self-destructive behavior in the following interview. COL Wilkerson was a senior official in the Bush administration when it launched the Iraq invasion. Now he calls it a mistake born of rage and fear. https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2021/09/10/amanpour-wilkerson-9-11.cnn

We have the most powerful military in the world. No military force could protect us at home (to the extent that our safety depends on military force) better. When it comes to its effectiveness in offensive attacks on other countries, its effectiveness is less clear and its effectiveness in efforts to rebuild the countries it has occupied…… well this fantastic three hour discussion reveals it as worse than zero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkjsjBknWfo

We once revered and defended our liberty above all else and we were respected and envied around the world. We prospered. Over the last twenty years we have gradually, year by year, squandered our cherished traditions and our standing and respect in the world has declined as a result. Former President Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban promising to remove all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. It was a bad agreement, but our departure was many years overdue. President Biden extended our stay for a few more months but has now honored Trump’s commitment. Why our military was unable to prepare properly for our withdrawal from Afghanistan with this two-year notice is a mystery we need to investigate.  

Never again should mean that we never again act out of fear. https://wcoats.blog/2021/09/05/nation-building-in-afghanistan-2/

Nation Building in Afghanistan

The lesson of Afghanistan is not that the US is washed up as a great power. The lesson is that the US is such a great power, militarily and economically, that it is continually tempted to try hopeless things that nobody else on earth – including China – would ever attempt.  David Frum

On July 8, 2021, President Biden said that: “the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.  We achieved those objectives.  That’s why we went.
We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build.” “Remarks by President Biden on the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan”

In fact, except for killing Osama Bin Laden, we had achieved those objectives before I arrived with an IMF team in January 2002 to contribute to building a more effective government. Finding and killing Bin Laden was delayed until May 2, 2011, because of the redirection of American efforts to the ill-advised and illegal war in Iraq. So why were American troops still occupying Afghanistan until August 30, 2021?

In an August 18, 2021, interview with George Stephanopoulos, President Biden explained what happened asking: “Then what happened? Began to morph into the notion that, instead of having a counterterrorism capability to have small forces there in — or in the region to be able to take on al-Qaeda if it tried to reconstitute, we decided to engage in nation-building. In nation-building. That never made any sense to me.”  “Biden’s claim that nation building Afghanistan never made any sense”

George W Bush opposed nation building in his 2000 presidential campaign. In his memoir, Decision Points, he states that “After 9/11, I changed my mind.” Already by April 2002, he stated that “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.” He was right. However, as he noted: “Our government was not prepared for nation building.” He was right about that as well.  “Bush on nation building and Afghanistan”

The U.S. officials responsible for “nation building” in Afghanistan knew little about its history and culture. They foolishly imposed an alien Western style government dropped on a diverse people as if from a drone. The US military is an excellent machinery of war. The best in the world. However, it does not have the skills required for “nation building.” Our military couldn’t even recruit the right solders or provide the training they needed to fight on their own, much less build a proper military organization. “Afghanistan combat interpreter Baktash Ahadi: U.S. cultural illiteracy”  And attempting nation building at the point of a gun is bound to fail.

And why did the Afghan soldiers that Americans trained for decades not fight to defend the existing government? “Afghan forces were demoralized by neglect, corruption and ethnic bias among their superiors. Often they went without pay and ammunition, and sometimes without rations….  ‘The why is corruption, the why is poor leadership,’ John Sopko, told The Washington Post in 2017, ‘If leadership is poor, the people below don’t care, and they wonder why they have to die.’” “Afghanistan U.S. troop withdrawal”

On Sunday August 15, 2021, Taliban forces walked into Kabul and took over the government without a shot.  “The Band of Brothers and Afghanistan”   But what did they take over or replace? And did 20 years of so-called nation building make any difference.  “Nation building” is often given a bad name because it has too often been associated with the imposition of a “government” by an occupying military force as with imperialism.  Afghanistan is a very different place than it was 20 years ago. Both the nation and its government and its institutions have changed considerably. We can hope that the Taliban has changed as well.

Governments consist of ruler/decision makers, and the institutions that administer whatever it is that the government does. A nation extends beyond its government to include civil society, and social and cultural norms. The Taliban have displaced Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, who fled to Uzbekistan then to the UAE rather than step aside for a transition period as had been agreed. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, remained and with former President Karzai is discussing the composition of a new government with Taliban leaders.

“Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will lead a new Afghan government….  Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme religious leader, will focus on religious matters and governance within the framework of Islam.

“While the Taliban have spoken of their desire to form a consensus government, a source close to the Islamist militant movement said the interim government now being formed would consist solely of Taliban members. It would comprise 25 ministries, with a consultative council, or shura, of 12 Muslim scholars, the source added.

“Also being planned within six to eight months is a loya jirga, or grand assembly, bringing together elders and representatives across Afghan society to discuss a constitution and the structure of the future government, the source said.”  “Taliban co-founder Baradar will lead new Afghanistan govt”

Prior to the fall of Kabul, the government of Afghanistan consisted of the cabinet of ministers, provincial governors and the national assembly, with a democratically elected president serving as the head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the Afghan Armed Forces. It appears that the new government will retain the same administrative units. In addition to the central bank (DAB), which I advised, these would include functions such as Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, Finance, Economy, Agriculture, Energy and Water, Justice, Information and Culture, Education, Industry and Commerce, Transportation, Women’s Affairs, Public Health, Mines, and of course, National Defense. Though the U.S. did a poor job developing Afghanistan’s National Defense institutions, more experienced international agencies made considerable progress in developing more efficient and effective agencies in many other areas. Of at least equal importance, a generation of Afghan men and women have grown up expecting their place in the world to reflect their skills and accomplishments (merit) rather than who they knew.

I have written earlier about the dramatic progress in modernizing the central bank’s operations. It was achieved in the proper, traditional way of “nation” and institution building. We explained best practice for central banks derived from the experiences of established central bank and the approaches we thought would fit best with Afghanistan’s existing central bank and economy. But DAB’s management and staff made the decisions of what to embrace and how to move forward and we offered guidance on designing and implementing those decisions. “BearingPoint Afghans”

But one institution can’t develop independently of what is happening in the rest of the country. In particular, developing the rule of law is critical and difficult. An example was provided by DAB’s (the banking supervisor) confrontation with a corrupt President and Attorney General over the resolution of the insolvent and criminal Kabulbank in 2010-12. The founders and owners of Kabulbank (President Karzai’s brother Mahmood was the third largest shareholder) had rapidly grown this newly licensed local bank into the country’s largest depository and had lent almost all of its deposits to themselves. During the global financial crisis of 2008, many of Kabulbank’s owners’ investments failed and they were unable to repay their depositors. DAB’s banking supervisors were blamed for weak supervision and even arrested and jailed in disregard of the provisions of the central bank law. The scandal revealed considerable corruption, but the supervisory resolution of the bank somewhat strengthened (modestly) the rule of law in the process.  “Afghan President Ghani’s attack on corruption”    “The Kabul Bank Scandal”

Another huge set back to the impressive development of DAB resulted from President Ghani appointing an unqualified friend, Ajmal Ahmady, as Acting Governor of the central bank. He fired many of the best of the BearingPoint Afghans and brought in his own small group of cronies. Mr. Ahmady’s appointment was rejected by the Parliament, but he illegally remained in his post.  The Taliban (???) have now appointed Haji Mohammad Idris as the Acting Governor of the central bank. “Mr. Idris was head of the Tabliban‘s finance section, but he has no formal financial training or higher education.”  “Haji Mohammad Idris”

These examples are meant to illustrate the distinction between a government’s leaders and its administrators. Time will tell whether our “nation building” efforts with DAB survive the attacks on it from Afghanistan’s leaders (current and past). But as a result of the nation building efforts of many international bodies, Afghanistan is a very different and better place, and its young population has very different expectations, than twenty years ago. I hope that the Taliban leaders that have taken over the government are also very different than their repressive and brutal forebearers of twenty years ago.

While the new government will no doubt leave many of the institutional structures in place that have been developed over the last two decades, from which they and the country have benefitted, the big question is what policies and rules they will establish under the name of Sharia law, especially with regard to the rights of women. The Taliban have their own internal factions that need to be sorted out and their earlier version of Sharia was an extremely harsh interpretation not shared by most Muslims. The Taliban has pledged to treat women and others fairly, within the dictates of Sharia Law. Other Muslims will need to convince the Taliban to moderate their earlier interpretations of what that means. The United States, the EU  “EU sets five conditions for future operational engagement with Taliban”, China, Russia, and the international organizations, have enormous financial and diplomatic leverage with which to encourage the Taliban government’s better behavior. They should be used vigorously to help build a better Afghanistan. Early signs are not encouraging, but these are early days. One Afghan friend changes locations every night in the hopes of not being found. Other friends are afraid to leave their homes at all.

The idea that we should refuse to cooperate with the new government and should oppose it at every turn from the outset is bone headed. Just ponder the alternatives for a second. Do not think that it is easy for me to sit here in my comfortable Bethesda home and urge us to give the Taliban a try. My days begin with heart wrenching pleas for help from Afghan friends and strangers. I challenge you to read the following account of dashed hopes without weeping: “After a university falls in Afghanistan a DC organization scrambles to keep students safe and still learning”   

Efforts to achieve a better Taliban government this time around may be a long shot, but the alternatives of a return to civil war and worse yet the return of American and NATO troops are not pretty either. The U.S. intention to cooperate with the new government in countering ISIS-K is encouraging, but, like anything else in life, not without risks.  “US may coordinate with Taliban to take on ISIS-K”  Nation building by everyone but the U.S. government over the last 20 years has not been a waste of time. Now is not the time to give it up.

Nation building is unlikely to be successful when coerced, i.e., when it is part of a military intervention. It does not follow that nation building–sharing best practice in the design and operation of institutions public and private–is an unworthy objective and undertaking.

BearingPoint Afghans

Sometime around 2004 or 2005, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) contracted BearingPoint (now part of Deloitte Consulting) to recruit and mentor approximately 80 young Afghan college graduates into Afghanistan’s central bank (DAB) and Finance Ministry. These young Afghans worked in DAB and the Finance Ministry for two years while being trained and mentored by BearingPoint experts. Following these two years they were offered regular jobs in these two institutions. While some moved on to higher paying jobs elsewhere most of them stayed with DAB and the MOF. Over the years that followed they rose within these institutions, and in DAB headed many of the departments including the position of Second Deputy Governor. Working with and watching the progress of these young Afghans was one of the most enjoyable and gratifying assignments in my career with the International Monetary Fund. They were smart, honest, and dedicated to improving life in their country (including their own). They were, and I hope still are, the hope for a better future for Afghanistan.

The elected Afghan government under which these BearingPoint Afghans worked has now been toppled by the Taliban, a group that harshly ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until displaced by an American-British invasion in November 2001.  Back in 1996: “Gaining control over most of the country, the Taliban impose their rule, forbidding most women from working, banning girls from education, and carrying out punishments including beatings, amputations and public executions. Only three countries officially recognize the Taliban regime: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”  “Afghanistan conflict timeline”

The Taliban in 1996 claimed to impose Sharia Law on Afghanistan. “Sharia” translates to ‘the way’ in Arabic and refers to a wide-ranging body of moral and ethical principles drawn from the Quran and from the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. The principles vary according to the interpretation of various scholars who established schools of thought followed by Muslims who use them to guide their day-to-day lives. Many Muslim-majority countries base their laws on their interpretation of the principles of Islamic law but, despite this, no two have identical laws.”  “Taliban and Sharia Law in Afghanistan”

The Taliban imposed a very severe version of Sharia that has not been embraced by very many Muslims. It was particularly restrictive on the activities and rights of women. Twenty years later Afghanistan is a different place, and the Taliban sounds like a different organization.

“KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban vowed Tuesday to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists as part of a publicity blitz aimed at reassuring world powers and a fearful population.

“Following a lightning offensive across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a strict form of Islamic rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical — and thousands have raced to the airport, desperate to flee the country.

“Older generations remember the Taliban’s previous rule, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions. A U.S.-led invasion drove them from power months after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida had orchestrated from Afghanistan while being sheltered by the Taliban.”  “Afghanistan Taliban Kabul”

So, what should American policy be toward the forthcoming Taliban or Taliban lead government? What does the Taliban pledge to “respect women’s rights consistent with their version of Sharia Law actually mean? We should deploy every diplomatic tool possible to encourage/pressure the new government to live up to its promises. Former President Karzai, current CEO Abdullah Abdullah and others are currently in discussions with the Taliban leadership over terms for an inclusive government.

The alternative of nonrecognition, once there is a government to recognize, is to encourage and even support civil war. Or, God forbid, to send our troops back (there is not much chance that our NATO allies would be conned a second time into join us there again). And how did that work out for us last time? Our over used weapon of economic sanctions harms the public we should be trying to help. Our inhuman sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela are imposing horrible pain on the their citizens with little impact on their governments. “Evidence-costs and benefits of economic sanctions”

In a recent Washington Post oped Nikki Haley argued that we should not recognize the Taliban government no matter what. “Nikki Haley-America must not recognize Taliban” I respected Ms. Haley when she was Governor of South Carolina but I eventually got over her when she embarrassed us while Ambassador to the UN. “The future of Israel and Palestine” Her unqualified attack on the Taliban firmly ties her to those who were responsible for our Afghan disaster in the first place. The new Afghan government may turn out to be as bad as the previous Taliban government, but we should do everything possible to prevent that.

The U.S. has suspended currency shipments purchased by Afghanistan’s central bank. Afghan assets (foreign exchange reserves, etc.) deposited abroad have been frozen including “its” access to reserves at the IMF. These may appear to be rejections of a new government, but they are not. There is no new government yet and those holding Afghan assets must keep them safe until their new owners are clearly and properly identified. The situation is much like the bank in which you have deposited money, freezing your deposits when you die until the new lawful owner is determined. There is an unavoidable, awkward period of uncertainty. It is not too late to reverse our mistake in closing our Embassy and running out while at the same time accusing the Afghan Army of behaving the same way.

It is also not true that nothing was accomplished these past 20 years. Our military leaders may have failed in their task of building a reliable Afghan Army, but many others, myself included, did not waste our time by helping Afghans build better institutions (see the story of the BearingPoint Afghans I started this article with above). See the discussion of this issue by Jonathan Rauch: “The  Afghanistan war was a partial success”

No one knows what the Afghan government will look like or which way it will go, but we all (except for the war mongers) have an interest in promoting its success, especially the hopeful, new generation of Afghans. “Can US work with Taliban”    “What do Taliban’s really want?”

And we must resist the siren calls of those who think that we can and should impose our vision and institutions on the rest of the world. We must keep our Army home to defend our homeland rather than messing with other people’s business. Our defense industries have profited enough.

Econ 101: Tony Judt on Trade

I just finished listening to the Audible version of Thinking the Twentieth Century, a discussion between Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, recorded just before Judt died in 2010. Judt was a British-American historian, essayist and university professor who specialized in European history. Snyder is an American author and historian specializing in the history of  Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.

I found Judt to be a very insightful in his area of political and social history expertise but generally off base on economic issues, which is not his field. I fear that his misunderstanding of trade is widely shared so I will set out some important basics as a contribution to better public understanding. “Science” doesn’t dictate policy, but a correct understanding of the economics of trade is essential if one’s value preferences are to lead to policies that produce your desired result.

Judt describes the increase in American wages for manufacturing workers along with their health and pension benefits over the past several decades leading manufacturing firms to outsource their production to the cheaper labor in (for example) China and thus hollowing out American manufacturing.  Almost everything about this description is wrong.

For starters manufacturing output in the U.S. is at an all-time high (prior to Covid shutdowns). Off shorting some of it has not hollowed out U.S. manufacturing.  Because manufacturing output has grown more slowly than the economy overall (the upper line below), its share of GDP has fallen (the lower line). Moreover, because of increased labor productivity in manufacturing, fewer workers are needed to produce this increased output (second chart) thus freeing labor to work in other areas and increasing our overall standard of living.

U.S. manufacturing output

Billions of US $ and Percent of GDP

Data Source: World Bank
MLA Citation: <a href=’https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/manufacturing-output’>U.S. Manufacturing Output 1997-2021</a>. http://www.macrotrends.net. Retrieved 2021-08-16.

But let’s take a closer look at Judt’s statement. If the U.S. shifts some manufacturing offshore, it must pay for it. Instead of paying American workers it must pay Chinese workers, and firms and shipping companies. Fundamentally, a country’s imports must be paid for by its exports (or by capital inflows from the exporting country). Let’s look carefully at each possibility. To simplify, let’s initially assume that there are no capital flows (cross border investments from one country in another) so that trade in goods and services must balance (i.e., pay for each other).

For starters whether labor is cheaper in China than in the U.S. cannot be determined without considering the exchange rate of the dollar for the Chinese Yuan. If exchange rates (not mentioned by Judt) are flexible (determined freely in the market) the fact of an increase in U.S. imports from China (i.e., the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing to China) will depreciate the dollar/Yuan exchange rate. As U.S. manufacturers sell dollars to buy Yuan with which to pay for the goods they now want to buy from China, Yuan will become more expensive (a depreciation of the exchange value of the dollar). The dollar’s depreciation will have two effects. It increases the cost of Chinese labor to U.S. companies and thus will reduce the cost advantage of Chinese labor and reduce the demand for it by U.S. firms. And it will lower the cost of U.S. exports thus making them more attractive in China. While the adjustments will take time, the dollar depreciation will continue until American exports increase and its imports from China moderate until trade balances–our increased exports pay for our increased imports.

If the exchange rates are fixed, as they were in gold standard days, the adjustment in the real effective exchange rate needed to balance trade takes a different form.  The initial increase in the demand for Chinese products (outsourcing to Chinese workers) are paid for with dollars. But to preserve the fixed exchange rate, the PBRC (Chinese central bank) must buy these dollars with newly created Chinese currency. This increase in the Chinese money supply will lift prices in China making Chinese exports more expensive in the U.S. and U.S. goods cheaper in China. In short, the real exchange rate adjustment needed to balance imports and exports in this case results from a higher inflation rate in China than in the U.S. while in the first case of flexible exchange rates it results from adjustments in the nominal exchanges rates themselves.

A third possibility is for China to take the extra dollars being spent in China and invest them in the U.S. (or elsewhere) This is the capital flow case in which trade itself does not balance.  This was the policy followed by China in the 2000s through 2014. The PBRC would buy the dollars being spent for outsourced Chinese labor (U.S. manufacturers payments to Chinese workers rather than to American ones for the goods they needed) and would invest them in the U.S. If the increase in the Chinese money supply resulting from those dollar purchases was more than was consistent with stable prices in China, the excess money would be sterilized–so called sterilized foreign exchange intervention (the PBRC would create Yuan to buy dollars and would repurchase some of those Yuan back with domestic Chinese securities owned by the PBRC).

To some extent this foreign exchange market intervention by the PBRC was the result of its desire to build up its FX reserves (a kind of insurance policy for exchange rate shocks). However, much of it was to prevent an appreciation of the Yuan that would reduce its exports (it was following an export led development strategy). This policy was much criticized abroad as currency manipulation and ended in 2013-4.  Thus, China has financed a significant part of the U.S. governments fiscal debt. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

Thus, when someone says that something is cheaper to make in China, remember that it must also be that from China’s perspective, something must be cheaper to make in the U.S. in order to pay for what China sends to us. Both sides benefit and the world grows richer.