Should you get vaccinated for Covid-19?

“A CBS/YouGov poll released this weekend found 33 percent of GOP voters say they will not get the vaccine when it’s available to them. Another 20 percent say they aren’t sure.” “The-daily-202”  After being thoroughly satisfied that Moderna was safe and effective, I have received both of my jabs. But I sympathize with those who are skeptical and/or distrusting of the information they have been fed over the last year. The messaging from the Trump administration was inconsistent and the CDC has now removed some earlier postings that had been more influenced by politics than by science (which, by the way, is far from having all of the answers yet).

In addition to poor messaging from the government, some badly misguided, if not deliberately evil, groups have spread false information.  So, I find it very encouraging that many of those refusing to get the vaccine say that they “want to be educated not indoctrinated.  The responses of focus group participants suggest they can be persuaded — but perhaps not by politicians, including the former president…. Be honest that scientists don’t have all the answers. Tout the number of people who got the vaccines in trials. And don’t show pro-vaccine ads with politicians — not even ones with Donald Trump.  That’s what a focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump voters insisted to politicians and pollsters this weekend….

 “’These people represent 30 million Americans. And without these people, you’re not getting herd immunity,’ said Frank Luntz, the longtime GOPpollster who convened Saturday’s focus group over Zoom.” Unfortunately Mr. Luntz is speaking nonsense as well. We would still get herd immunity even without a vaccine as people would acquire immunity as a result of being infected. The process would be slower with more deaths, but we would get there. I am sure that Mr. Luntz meant well.

Participants in these focus groups “all believed the coronavirus threat was real, with many having contracted it themselves or aware of critically ill friends and family, and they didn’t want to be condemned as “anti-vaxxers” who opposed all vaccines. Instead, they blamed their hesitation on factors like the unknown long-term effects of new vaccines, even though scientists have stressed their confidence in the products. They also accused politicians and government scientists of repeatedly misleading them this past year….

“For instance, [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy said he understood the Trump voters’ hesitation because pharmaceutical companies waited until after Trump lost the election to announce their promising vaccine results — a comment that sparked participants to share their own resentments.

‘It was political stunts like that that leave doubt in our minds,’ said a man identified as David from Texas.”

In another session “a man called Chad from Minnesota,… praised [former head of the CDC Dr.] Frieden for acknowledging that the long-term risks of the vaccines aren’t yet known. “He’s just honest with us and telling us, nothing is 100 percent here, people.”

The lessons are clear. The best results are obtained by treating the public like adults. The government needs to honestly present the best information available, acknowledging what is known and what is uncertain.

“’I’ve been thinking the messaging was going to be very different for communities of color, for Democrats, for Republicans,’ said Natalie Davis, co-founder of United States of Care, a public health advocacy group working on vaccine outreach with organizations like the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation. ‘But it feels like it comes down to the basics that are shared across populations. People want full, accurate information so they can decide if this is the right thing for them and their loved ones….’

“‘The vaccines were approved quickly in part because red tape was cut, not corners,’ [Dr. Frieden said. ‘And almost all the doctors who are offered the vaccine get it.’”   “Vaccine hesitant republicans focus group”

The unnecessary fight over Covid-19

We American’s expect to be able to make our own choices about what risks we are willing to take. The limits on our behavior generally concern when it threatens to harm others. When state after state issued stay at home orders and mandated the closing of many businesses (restaurants and theaters, etc.) a year ago they violated this principle. Many people rebelled at this intrusion into their prerogatives, but sadly by often making foolish decisions of their own. Of course, those who contract a contagious disease, such as Covid-19, should be legally quarantined.  Otherwise, businesses and individuals should make their own decisions about how to respond to this pandemic on the basis of the best possible information about its risks and how to mitigate them. A role in which the government failed miserably.

As with economic decisions more generally, countries that give maximum scope to individuals about what to produce and/or buy have been far more prosperous than those in which more decisions are made centrally and imposed from the top (socialism). Among other things the CARES Act suspended debt payments (and associated defaults, bankruptcies, and evictions) for understandable reasons https://wcoats.blog/2020/04/11/econ-202-cares-act-who-pays-for-it/. However, it was part and parcel of centralized mandatory decision making and inferior to individual case by case decisions by lenders and borrowers (debt restructuring) and landlords and tenants (rent forgiveness or holiday or eviction). In normal times when a debtor is unable to service its debt, for purely profit maximizing reasons lenders evaluated case by case whether to allow temporary arrears (debt restructuring) or to invoke the default provisions of the loan (bankruptcy).

Restaurants that felt they could safely open with social distancing and other safety measures that would convince their customers to return should be allowed to do so. They should be free to decide whether requiring face masks when entering and walking about the restaurant would attract more customers than not doing so. Customers who were not comfortable in a restaurant that did not take these safety measure would not patronize them. The relevant government should decide whether to require them on public transportation, etc.  If you come to my house, be sure that you are wearing one.

The culture war we now witness over face masks and other aspects of appropriate public behavior with regard to Covid-19 was so unnecessary. The American government behaved like a parent dealing with children and many Americans responded by behaving like children. They didn’t choose not to wear face masks because they were convinced by medical data that they are not effective (most data shows that they are very effective). Rather they chose not to wear them because the government told them they must. Childish indeed. Almost a year ago I wrote that the government’s most effective role was to provide the best information available (and more was coming available every week) about the nature and risks of Covid-19 and how best to avoid or mitigate those risks. If restaurants felt that they could safely remain open, they would need to convince potential customers that they had taken measures to protect them from exposure to the virus. This was not the approach taken by the government and public trust in the statements of the government in recent years has been, to say the least, low.

I expressed these views almost exactly a year ago (March 31, 2020). I repeat that blog here:

https://wcoats.blog/2020/03/31/beating-covid-19-compulsion-or-persuasion-and-guidance/

The New Covid-19 Support Bill

The New Covid-19 assistance bill could add an additional 1.9 trillion dollars to support the fight against Covid-19.  In discussing the 2 trillion dollar CARES Act last April I wrote that: “The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation.”  “Econ 202-CARES Act-who pays for it?”  While I referred to the shutdowns as the result of “risk averse customers or government mandates”, it seems that the “blame” lies with sensibly risk-averse customers who stayed home and/or out of public gathering places by their own choice before the government required it. “Lockdowns-job losses”  A key point was that this was not a stimulus bill as output/income fell because its supply fell, not for lack of demand to buy it by consumers.

As total and partial shutdowns will continue for a few more months (or permanently for some unlucky firms) such support (properly targeted) should be continued for a while longer. But at what level and for how long? As I stressed in my April blog, the CARES Act payments to unemployed workers did not create income but rather transferred it out of a diminished pie from those who still had incomes (and could buy the government bonds that raised the money being transferred).  As I noted then and as is increasingly important now, the increased fiscal and monetary support that accompanied these government expenditures will need to be unwound carefully as the economy recovers. Equally important, the further increases in debt and money created by the currently proposed support should not exceed what is “truly” needed. U.S. national debt is already almost 28 trillion dollars, over 130% of GDP.

While CARES Act type support was needed and helpful, it was not always appropriately targeted. It is not the kind of emergency spending that is easy to get fully right.  As time goes on more and more evidence will be collected of abusive uses of these funds. Rather than choosing specific firms and classes of individuals to receive support, implementation of a Guaranteed Basic Income for everyone irrespective of income and situation would provide a better safety net for all situations. “Our social safety net”

In December President Trump signed a $900 billion Covid relief bill providing “a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.”

President Biden has proposed a new additional $1.9 trillion dollar package. Added to the $900 billion approved in December, this would be 13% of GDP, a VERY large amount.  Ten Republicans have proposed a narrower package of $618 trillion. They would exclude measure not directly relevant to the impact of the pandemic such as raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour (a measure that would be damaging to inexperienced, new job entrance). The Congressional Budget Office has just “estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost 1.4 million jobs by 2025 and increase the deficit by $54 billion over ten years.” “Minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2025 would result 14 million unemployed”

The Democrats’ package would provide $1,400 per person direct cash payments across the board in addition to the $600 provided by the December bill. The Republican proposal would lower the thresholds for receiving assistance to individuals making $50,000 or $100,000 for couples and would provide checks of $1,000 per person.  They were expecting to negotiate a compromise package, which now, unfortunately, seems unlikely, though as this is written discussions continue. There are many individual provisions in the proposed bill. I have not reviewed them. My focus here is on the overall financial size of the proposal.

In an interesting oped in the Washington Post, Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, gently warned that the democrats’ package was excessive and risked rekindling inflation.  He wrote that:

“A comparison of the 2009 stimulus and what is now being proposed is instructive. In 2009, the gap between actual and estimated potential output was about $80 billion a month and increasing. The 2009 stimulus measures provided an incremental $30 billion to $40 billion a month during 2009 — an amount equal to about half the output shortfall.

“In contrast, recent Congressional Budget Office estimates suggest that with the already enacted $900 billion package — but without any new stimulus — the gap between actual and potential output will decline from about $50 billion a month at the beginning of the year to $20 billion a month at its end. The proposed stimulus will total in the neighborhood of $150 billion a month, even before consideration of any follow-on measures. That is at least three times the size of the output shortfall.

“In other words, whereas the Obama stimulus was about half as large as the output shortfall, the proposed Biden stimulus is three times as large as the projected shortfall. Relative to the size of the gap being addressed, it is six times as large….  [Given] the difficulties in mobilizing congressional support for tax increases or spending cuts, there is the risk of inflation expectations rising sharply.” “Larry Summers-Biden-covid stimulus”

The U.S. national debt was $22.7 trillion at the end of 2019 and skyrocketed to $26.9 trillion at the end of 2020. On February 7 it stood at $27.88 trillion or $84,198 per person and $222,191 per taxpayer. This is 130.8% of GDP. This is a very big number. Much of this debt has been purchased by the Federal Reserve resulting in an explosion of its balance sheet and the public’s holdings of money. At the end of 2019 the Federal Reserve assets (the counterpart of which is largely base money–currency held by the public and bank deposits with the Federal Reserve) $4.17 trillion and grew to $7.36 trillion by the end of 2020. In other words, the Federal Reserve bought $3.19 trillion of the $4.2 trillion increase in the national debt. This is a bit of an overstatement because the Fed also bought a modest amount of other debt.  Much of the rest was purchased by foreigners as “the U.S. trade deficit rose 17.7% to $678.7 billion and hit the highest level since 2008.” “The US trade deficit rose in 2020 to a 12 year high”

Because the Federal Reserve now pays banks interest to keep large amounts of their deposits with the Fed in excess of required amounts (excess reserves), the money supply measured as currency in circulation and demand deposits with banks (M1) grew somewhat less than the Fed’s purchases of US debt. In 2020 M1 grew $2.5 trillion, a year in which GDP ended a bit lower than it started.` In part, the public is not spending this money at the rates they normally would because the theaters and restaurants, etc. are closed. A seriously inflated stock market and cryptocurrency values seem to be temporary beneficiaries.

According to Wells Fargo: “We estimate consumers are sitting on $1.5 trillion in excess savings compared to the saving rate’s pre-COVID trend….  After a year of limiting trips, eating at home and putting off doctor appointments, we expect consumers will be eager to engage in many of the in-person services forgone during the pandemic, and spend on gas to get there and clothes to look good doing it. The ample means and eagerness to spend could potentially set off a bout of demand-driven inflation that has not been experienced in decades.”  “Wells Fargo–Poking the Inflation Bear”

As I noted last April, unwinding these monetary and fiscal injections, as is necessary to avoid a significant increase in inflation, will be challenging. And now we are even deeper into debt. As inflation increases nominal interest rates will increase as well and the cost of our huge debt financing with it. While managing the short run impact of the pandemic, the government’s eyes should be on the longer run picture as well.

My Travels to Jerusalem

Palestine: The Oslo Accords before and after, My travels to Jerusalem By Warren L Coats (2021) Kindle and paperback versions available at: Oslo Accords: Before and After

An intimate account of the establishment of the Palestine Monetary Authority and related adventures by one of the International Monetary Fund’s post-conflict, transition economy monetary experts. From being stranded in the desert without a cell phone, to hearing the sound at breakfast of a suicide bomber, to meeting with Yasser Arafat, and Stanley Fischer of the Bank of Israel, the author shares his adventures in the land of Canaan over a sixteen year period.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 in Israel’s ancestral homeland required dealing with Palestine’s existing residents. In the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel’s occupation of the territories given to the Palestinians when the United Nations first recognized the State of Israel (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) increased pressure to resolve that issue. The Oslo Accords offered a path to its resolution, based on an agreement between Yasser Arafat, representing the Palestinian people, and the government of Israel, to swap land for peace (the return of Palestinian lands in exchange for Palestinian recognition of the State of Israel and its right to exist in peace).

One of the elements of the Oslo Accords was the establishment of a central bank in the Occupied Territories. Between 1995 and 2011 Warren Coats lead or participated in the missions of the International Monetary Fund to assist the Palestinian Authority in establishing and developing the capacities of the Palestine Monetary Authority. This book recounts the highlights of his visits, which included meetings with Arafat, as well as Bank of Israel officials.

Previous Books

One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Warren Coats (2007)   Hard cover: One Currency for Bosnia

FSU: Building Market Economy Monetary Systems–My Travels in the Former Soviet Union By Warren L Coats (2020)  Kindle and paperback versions available at: FSU-Building-Economy-Monetary-Systems

Afghanistan: Rebuilding the Central Bank after 9/11 — My Travels to Kabul By Warren Coats (2020)  Kindle and paperback versions available at:  “Afghanistan-Rebuilding the Central Bank after 9/11”

Iraq: An American Tragedy, My Travels to Baghdad By Warren Coats (2020) Kindle and paperback versions available at: Iraq-American-Tragedy-My-Travels-Baghdad

Zimbabwe: Challenges and Policy Options after Hyperinflation by Warren L. Coats (Author), Geneviève Verdier (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition Zimbabwe-Challenges and Policy Options after Hyperinflation-ebook

Money and Monetary Policy in Less Developed Countries: A Survey of Issues and Evidence by Warren L. Coats (Author, Editor), Deena R. Khatkhate (Author, Editor)  Format: Kindle Edition Money and Monetary Policy in LDCs-ebook

Access to COVID-19 vaccines

In less than one year from learning of this virus, we now have two approved safe and effective covid-19 vaccines with at least one more on the way. Millions of doses have already been produced. This is a near miracle. Thank you pharmaceutical industry and the governments (and their tax payers) that are paying for it.

Getting the vaccine into our bodies is quite another thing. This has several elements. The first is distributing the vaccines to each state/county and site of vaccinations. The second (or first and a half) is staffing these sites with professions able to administer the shots with the necessary equipment (refrigeration, syringes and needles, etc.). The third is determining who can receive the shot this week and getting them to the right place. The need for these three elements has been known for as long as the need for a vaccine has been known. And officials have known the likely vaccines for at least half a year. But planning for delivering the vaccine to your arm (or the lack of it) has been totally botched.

Focusing on the United States, the federal government promised to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of the year (last week). “Of the more than 12 million doses of vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. with BioNTech SE that have been shipped, only 2.8 million have been administered, according to federal figures….  The federal government is sending vaccines to states based on their populations, and it has provided guidelines, but no rules, about how they should be distributed…. On Friday [Jan 1, 2021], Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) criticized the vaccine rollout, saying in a statement that the lack of a comprehensive federal plan to be shared with states “is as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable.”  WSJ: Covid-19-vaccines-slow-rollout-could-portend-more-problems”

Priority

Beyond the above fiasco, it is necessary to determine the priority for receiving the shots and communicating that information to you and me.  As we have already seen it will take a while–many months–to vaccinate everyone even without the above mess. So, who should get them the first month and the second month etc.? I discussed this issue last May. https://wcoats.blog/2020/05/18/the-vaccine-who-gets-it-first/

One criterion for establishing inoculation priorities is to allocate the vaccines so as to maximize the lives saved. I suggest that a better criterion is to maximize the life saved. The difference between the number of lives saved and the amount of life saved can be explained with a simple example. If there is only one dose and it is given to an 85 year old woman otherwise in good health, she might live another healthy year. If given to a 40 year old nurse, he might live another 46 healthy years. In both cases only one life has been saved but in the second case much more life has been saved (46 years of life rather than only one). But this potentially understates the case for giving the jab (as the British call it) to the nurse. One nurse that has been immunized against covid-19 can safely treat more patients that have covid-19 thus saving even more lives and more life. An argument in the other direction of inoculating the elderly first is to flatten the curve (i.e., reduce the inflow of covid-19 patients into overflowing hospitals).

In my view there is a strong case for maximizing the life saved rather than the number of lives saved. We older people should not crowed out younger people who as a result of the vaccination might enjoy much longer lives, something we have already enjoyed. The case, in my view, is overwhelming for critical workers (healthcare workers, grocery store workers, delivery people, etc.) of all ages to receive priority. “Many states are following CDC guidelines to start with front-line medical workers and people in long-term care facilities, but not all. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Dec. 23 extended eligibility to people aged 65 and older.  Because each county and hospital in the state implemented its own approach, many people didn’t know whether to call, log on or show up in person to secure a spot.” [Same WSJ article] 

 A single dose of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines “appears to provide strong protection against the coronavirus…. With supplies of the vaccines limited — and hundreds of millions of people waiting for inoculation — this leaves epidemiologists grappling with a complicated question. Should the nation vaccinate fewer people with the best protection possible, or provide twice the number of people with a single shot, covering more of the population but with slightly weaker protection?”  “Coronavirus-vaccine-single-dose-debate”

But if the government can get itself organized (I know that that asks a lot) the existing and rapidly expanding supply of vaccines can be administered in a relatively modest number of months after which the priority issue vanishes.

Information

Whatever your priority turns out to be, how do you know where and when to show up? Do you need a prescription or approval and if so where do you get it? My insurance company is sending regular updates on what I should do. My Maryland county (Montgomery) website has information on the priority phase they are in (phase 1 at the moment) and that is about all (probably because every dispensary–hospitals, doctor’s offices, CVS–sets its own rules). I plan to contact my Primary Care Physician (PCP) for instructions next month when the situation might be a bit clearer.  What should people without medical insurance or a PCP do?  I have visited Kenya many times with the IMF and suspect that they are doing a better job with this than we are. How and why is this such a mess?

Facebook and Immigration

December 3rs’s WSJ started an article on immigration as follows:

“The Trump administration has sued Facebook Inc., accusing the social-media company of illegally reserving high-paying jobs for immigrant workers it was sponsoring for permanent residence, rather than searching adequately for available U.S. workers who could fill the positions.

The lawsuit reflects a continuing Trump administration push to crack down on alleged displacement of American workers.”  “Trump administration claims Facebook improperly reserved jobs for H1-b workers”

Immigration policy is a complex issue with many aspects. The economic aspects, however, should be straight forward and simple. https://wcoats.blog/2018/03/03/econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms/  https://wcoats.blog/2018/03/24/econ-101-trade-deficits-another-bite/  https://wcoats.blog/2018/09/28/trade-protection-and-corruption/ A free market in goods and labor increases productivity and output making the world wealthier. The cost for this extraordinary benefit is that some firms may go out of business and some workers may lose their existing jobs when someone else does better what the firm or worker were doing. They will need to move on to other activities or jobs.  It is wise and appropriate social policy to help those displaced by competition find alternative uses of their resources and skills.

It might seem rather harmless to protect existing firms and jobs from competition (aside from its afront to our individual freedom) but overtime the cost in reduced income growth will become greater and greater. What if such policies had been imposed a hundred years ago? Where would we be now?

If there are American workers who can perform the same job for the same wage Facebook needs, it has every financial incentive to hire them over sponsoring foreign workers. They don’t need laws to push them to do so. The good old profit incentive works just fine. It is fortunate that the exercise of our individual freedom to invent, invest, and work where we please also produces the most efficient (i.e. productive, thus profitable) use of our talents and resources. Talk about win-win. Those displaced when I come up with a better idea (i.e., something the rest of you like better) should be discouraged from stopping such progress with an effective economic safety net. “Replacing Social Security with a Universal Basic Income”

The Rule of Law: China and the U.S.

The rule of law has been an essential and critical foundation of successful free market economies. It provides the certainty of property rights and contracts needed for entrepreneurs to risk their capital in business undertakings. But as our business and other activities cross borders, whose laws apply?

“Among the earliest examples of legal codes concerning maritime affairs is the Byzantine Lex Rhodia, promulgated between 600 and 800 C.E. to govern trade and navigation in the Mediterranean.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_sea  Leaping forward, international air travel, satellite communications, spectrum allocation for radio, TV, internet, and other telephonic transmission would be impossible without firm agreements among countries–the international rule of law.

Laws facilitate commerce–buying and selling–by establishing rules for doing so (e.g. contract enforcement rules) that are stable and applicable to all. They lower the costs and reduce the risks of trading. The United States Constitution recognizes the importance of this in the commerce clause of Article I Section 8, which is used to prevent individual states from taxing or otherwise interfering with interstate commerce. Achieving the same law-based freedom to trade across national borders is more difficult, requiring the negotiation of agreements and treaties that establish common rules between sovereign nations.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) develops and enforces the rule of law in the area of cross border trade. The difficulty of achieving global agreement on the rules of various aspects of trade is reflected in the fact that no new agreements have been reached since the establishment of the WTO (taking over the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs) on January 1, 1995. “The WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out the principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions. They include individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other trade barriers, and to open and keep open services markets. They set procedures for settling disputes.” the WTO – what is it?

China was admitted to the WTO as a developing country on December 11, 2001. Chinese officials immediately expressed the desire to understand and conform to the international rules required by the WTO and requested technical assistant from the IMF for doing so. In July of 2002, the IMF sent me to Beijing to review their needs with them.  They were particularly keen to have an American banking supervisor to advise them. I had a perfect candidate who was just finishing a two-year posting to Hong Kong. Everyone I spoke to in Beijing, as well as my Chinese colleagues at the IMF, stated that virtually all Chinese officials agreed on where China wanted to go–full liberalization according to WTO rules. They only differed with regard to how fast they thought they should move to get there.

Our condition was that our resident banking supervision advisor had to have his office located with the other Chinese banking supervisors and that he would have an open door. This was enthusiastically accepted by the Deputy Governor who apparently had not informed the Governor of these details. Unfortunately, when the Governor was presented the contract of his signature, he killed the arrangement. I was, however, able to enjoy wonderful tours of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and dine on the best Peking Duck I have ever had.  

An economically rising China is lifting millions of people out of poverty. We rightly welcome its newly productive economy contributing to increasing world output and living standards. The challenge is to square China’s authoritarian political regime with an international free market trading system. The vehicle has been the WTO and other international rule setting bodies that exist to harmonize diverse economies in the direction of freer and more open trade. The rules were being set by the dominant, largely free market economies that China wanted to join.

Beyond an American led WTO itself, the multilateral trade agreement that established the highest standards yet for tariff reduction and the incorporation of more modern trade issues such as non-trade barriers, services, protection of intellectual property, minimum labor standards, and dispute resolution (the rule of law cannot meaningfully exist without credible dispute resolution procedures) was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated between 2006 and 2015. The TPP agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States was announced on October 5, 2015.

Three days later, on October 8, I spoke in New York City at a seminar hosted by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New York on the internationalization of China’s currency, the renminbi. All of the talk by the Chinese attending was about the TPP. Why was China excluded? Could they join? My reply was that China would be very welcomed to join when they were able to meet the treaty’s conditions. TPP was another powerful magnet pulling China into the liberal international trading order.  

A recent report from the Peterson Institute of International Economics (June 23, 2020) stated that: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was designed in 2016 to be almost China-proof, with stringent obligations requiring transparency and trade liberalization. As former US Trade Representative Michael Froman put it, Chinese participation would be welcomed only when China could meet TPP’s terms, which it was far from doing. The United States was not keeping China out; China was just not ready to come in.” “China and Trans Pacific Partnership-in or out”

Broadly speaking, the aim of the WTO is to increasingly move its member countries toward the freest trade possible with fair competition (a level playing field), thus promoting a more productive allocation of economic resources and lifting global incomes.  The organization is not without its problems. But rather than working to strengthen the WTO, President Trump turned to negotiating bilateral trade agreements and raising rather than lowering import tariffs. Clearly bilateral agreements are easier to conclude than are global or broad multilateral agreements. Trump focused on China and its large bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. out of the mistaken belief that its surplus (our deficit) was harmful to the U.S. and that reducing it would increase American jobs. “Who pays Uncle Sam’s deficits”

In one of his most short-sighted actions from a sadly long list, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP on January 23, 2017. In addition to tweaking a few existing trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by incorporated many of the newer provisions of the TPP and the United States-Japan Trade Agreement and the United States-Japan Digital Trade Agreement, and imposing protective tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel and aluminum imports in the name of national security and “America First,” the Trump administration has focused its trade war bilaterally on China (with occasional pot shots at our friends in Europe and elsewhere).  “Trade Office fact-sheets and-annual-report”   A Brookings Institution study assessed the result of all of this for the American economy and workers as follows: “American firms and consumers paid the vast majority of the cost of Trump’s tariffs. While tariffs benefited some workers in import-competing industries, they hurt workers in sectors that rely on imported inputs and those in exporting industries facing retaliation from trade partners. Trump’s tariffs did not help the U.S. negotiate better trade agreements or significantly improve national security.”  “Did-Trump’s-tariffs-benefit-American-workers-and-national-security”

The remaining eleven countries that had signed the TPP agreed in January 2018 on a revised treaty they renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” (CPTPP).  CPTPP is substantially the same as TPP, but omits 20 provisions that had been of particular interest to the U.S. These provisions can be relatively easily restored should the U.S. choose to rejoin. “Trade and Globalization”

With the increasing power of Xi Jinping, China’s President and the General Secretary/Chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (now for life), China has played an increasingly active role in the IMF, WB, WTO and other international bodies. In addition, it has launched several regional organizations that it leads (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank–BRICS, and the Belt and Road Initiative) “The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the SDR”  Xi Jinping claimed that the AIIB would adhere to the highest international standards. But as President Trump and others have noted, there are a number of important areas in which China does not abide by the WTO rules. The policy question is what should be done about it.

The Cato Institution began a recent review of China’s trade practices as follows: “There is a growing bipartisan sentiment in Washington that Chinese trade practices are a problem, since these practices are unfair to American companies in a number of ways. But there is disagreement about the appropriate response. Can multilateral institutions be of use here? Or is unilateralism the only way?” Their conclusion is that the WTO and other multilateral institutions would be the most effective way of continuing to pull China into compliance with the international rule-based system. “Disciplining China’s trade practices at the WTO-how -WTO complaints can help”

President Trump has unilaterally gone the other way. He has blocked Huawei, the world’s leading seller of 5G technology and smartphones, from U.S. 5G mobile phone systems and urged our European allies to do the same because of Huawei’s links with the Chinese government. He is attempting to block the sales of U.S. and other non-Chinese manufacturers of the semiconductor chips used in Huawei and other Chinese products to China.  “A-brewing-US-China-tech-cold-war-rattles-the-semiconductor-industry”  He is trying to ban TikTok, WeChat and other popular Chinese products from U.S. markets and raising tariffs on an increasing number of Chinese products imported into the U.S. Some of these measures might be justified on national security grounds but some seem more protectionist of U.S. companies that are not otherwise competitive.

We are basically forcing China to build its own alternative rules and approach to trade. It is even offering its own global tracking system in place of the GPS system the U.S. has given the world and they seem well along in dividing the World Wide Web and other Internet protocols into two worlds. https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/voa-news-china/chinas-rival-gps-navigation-carries-big-risks

A November 20, 2020 article by William Pesek highlights what Trump’s misguided trade war with China is producing: “On his presidential watch, Donald Trump did manage to make one thing great: economic cooperation within North Asia.

So chaotic and pernicious was the outgoing US president’s pivot away from Asia that China, Japan and South Korea are dropping the hatchet and joining hands. The unlikely union was formalized on November 15 with the signing of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, free trade agreement.”  “US sidelined as China Korea and Japan unite”  The RCEP is a lighter more limited trade agreement than was the TPP (now the CPTPP) but it is led by China rather than the U.S.  Rather than converging to WTO standards it creates an alternative. 

“President Xi Jinping’s Friday [Nov 20, 2020] announcement of China’s intent to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a high-standard mega regional trade pact, has been seen as a bold move to reassure the world of the country’s continuing commitment to reform and opening-up.” “News analysis: an uphill task for China to negotiate CPTPP accession agreement”  While Xi Jinping’s strategy for China’s ascension is to take over the leadership in forging the rules for the international order more to the liking of his regime, China’s younger and upcoming managerial and entrepreneurial class, many of whom studied in the U.S. and Europe, have seen and liked the freer and more open capitalist societies. Their patriotism and commitment to a rising China is informed by the knowledge that freer and more open economies thrive more than centrally controlled ones.  We should not overlook their potential for returning China to a path of liberalization and integration with the liberal international order enjoyed by the rest of us.

Xi Jinping and his government’s goal is to retain power by delivering rapid economic growth, which allows and requires a vibrant private sector, while overseeing tight political control. One example is provided by its Social Credit System.  “China’s social credit system-mark of progress or threat to privacy?”  This requires a different set of rules for cross border trade than set out by the WTO. But many of China’s world traveling citizens see China’s successful rise in more closely embracing free market capitalism. We should incentivize the later view.

President Trump’s trade policies have damaged the world’s rule-based trading system and hurt the American economy while turning China in a different direction. President elect Biden has indicated his interest in rejoining the TPP. He should give it and the rebuilding of the WTO and other multilateral bodies high priority.

Judy Shelton’s monetary policy

I share Judy Shelton’s support for monetary policy with a hard anchor. Following currency board rules, the public should determine the money supply they want to hold at its fixed price. Historically, gold was the most common hard anchor. It worked well for centuries. However, it had two problems.

The first is that central banks actually bought and stored gold, which distorted its market supply and thus price. Widespread adoption of a gold anchor combined with central banks buying up much of it would be an even more serious problem today. But gold can anchor the price of a currency without the central bank actually hoarding gold. It would instead issue its currency against other safe assets, such as government debt securities, as fixed gold price. It would fully back its currency with such assets so that it could redeem it all if the public chose to return it. This would ensure that the gold price in the market in the central banks currency was always very close to its official (anchor) price.

This system of indirect redeemability, as Leland Yeager called it, would ensure a more stable market price for gold relative to other goods and services and thus a more stable purchasing power of a currency fixed to it. However, choosing a single commodity as the anchor (its second problem) would result in a less stable value of the currency than would choosing a small basket of widely traded commodities. https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/returning-to-currencies-with-hard-anchors

Given the discretion to manage their currency supplies, central banks have historically tended to undermine its value as the result of over issuing it (inflation). Judy is right to want to limit that discretion. The Federal Reserve Act mandates that the Federal Reserve should aim for price stability (and full employment). This is an important constraint on the Fed’s behavior, but we can do better.

Unions vs the Gig Economy

Americans largely support and benefit from a political/legal environment conducive to individual freedom and active entrepreneurship.  However, within that broad consensus, views vary over how large and prescriptive the role of government and mandatory bodies should be.  Should only doctors, lawyers, plumbers and hairdressers licensed by the state be allowed to provide their services?  Few things capture this difference more clearly and dramatically than whether cab drivers must be employees of the cab company or can work as little or as much as they chose as independent contractors– company employees or gig workers (uber drivers).

Licensed professionals, like union members, can help promote and certify a minimum standard of training and confidence. But historically they have also sheltered their members from competition. Unions provide a number of services to their members, but their overriding purpose is to confront employers with a united front from workers on wages and working conditions. They understandably exist to serve the interests of their members.  While the commercial success of the companies’ union workers work for is also in the interest of these workers in the long run (if companies are not profitable they cannot provide jobs and/or good wages) it is more remote from workers’ immediate interests.

Gig workers are independent contractors who individually agree with an employer (such as Uber or Lyft) on wages, hours, and working conditions. In fact, Uber and Lyft drivers decide on their own, hour by hour whether and when to work. Their financial reward rests more directly on satisfying their customers.  The brand name Uber or Lyft must also insure a minimum standard of service to their riders (quality and cleanliness of the car and honesty and politeness of the driver, etc.). https://wcoats.blog/2014/12/18/free-markets-uber-alles/

The incentives confronting union workers and gig workers thus differ. Union works, in the first instance, by confronting their employers seeking better working conditions and pay (wages and benefits) while gig workers are competing with other drivers to please their customers. The results can be mixed but the difference between a ride with a yellow cab driver and a Lyft driver can be rather dramatic. I never had a yellow cab driver leap out of the spotlessly clean car to open my door saying: “I hope that you enjoyed your ride.” But while Uber and Lyft provide us with better and cheaper rides, they also provide drivers with more and better options of when and where they work.  Some want to work only a few extra hours after a regular job. Some choose to put in long hours when in need of extra money. Like most transactions in a free market both drivers and riders benefit–its win, win.

My experiences with unions have not been good. My father was a Shell Oil union member.  His union went on strike long ago when my mother was pregnant with my younger brother. After a few months on strike it was growing obvious (according to my father) that it would end soon in failure from the union perspective. The union bosses feared that my father and others would return to work before the union had formally given up. They came to our house and told my pregnant mother that it would be quite unhealthy for her if my father returned to work.

While a student at the U of C Berkeley I had taken jobs for three summers with Shell Oil, one of the perks they give their workers’ children. Two summers were roustabouting in the oil fields of Kern County, California with regular Shell employees who never spoke of labor relations with the company. Instead they talked about their families and non-work activities.  The middle of the three summers with Shell, I was assigned to the supply yard behind Shell’s Kern County headquarters. I assisted the one employee there who loaded pipes and other oil field equipment onto trucks that then delivered the equipment to the fields I had worked in the summer before. Much of the time the two of us just hung out there waiting for the next truck, very unlike digging ditches to repair leaking pipes as I had done the previous summer in 112-degree summer heat. We drove around in the small portable crane used for loading the trucks. The entire time my “companion,” an avid union member, complained about how Shell Oil was exploiting us. After a few weeks I dreaded having to be around him.

After my brother and sister and I were out of the house my mother went back to school, first to finish high school and then to college and a teaching degree. She became a highly successful grammar schoolteacher who specialized in taking on (and taming) problem students. She complained frequently at the attitude and self-protective behavior of the teachers’ union members that was far more interested in protecting mediocre teachers than in teaching students.  Michelle Rhee only turned around the education system in Washington DC when she was able to break the strangle hold of the teacher’s union.

More recently we have seen yet again the destructive role of police unions in protecting bad cops in connection with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Police-unions-minneapolis-kroll” Much has been written about how deals with police unions has thwarted needed reforms in policing. There seemed to be broad nonpartisan support for such reforms before the “defund the police” nonsense killed it.

But there is a surprising bit of good news from the election earlier this month beyond replacing Trump.  In California, for example, the state was attempting to apply a law regulating employment (AB-5) to contract Uber and Lyft drivers, demanding that they be treated as employees rather than contractors. This would have destroyed Uber and Lyft’s business models and was strongly opposed by them and their drivers. “California’s Public Utilities Commission said in an order Tuesday [June 9, 2020] that Uber and Lyft drivers are “presumed to be employees” under AB-5, the state’s new gig work law.” “Uber-Lyft-drivers-declared-employees-by-California-regulators”  California voters rejected this union effort to kill the market for gig drivers.

As The Wall Street Journal put it: “Democrats and unions in California are shell-shocked. Voters last Tuesday rejected a referendum that would have allowed racial preferences in state hiring and college admissions, defeated a massive business property tax hike, and rescued tens of thousands of gig economy jobs.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/californias-progressive-thumping-11605136309?st=ra1kvgf2okxr35j&reflink=article_email_share

The following description of Proposition 22 appeared on California ballets:

PROP 22

EXEMPTS APP-BASED TRANSPORTATION AND DELIVERY COMPANIES FROM PROVIDING EMPLOYEE BENEFITS TO CERTAIN DRIVERS. INITIATIVE STATUTE.

SUMMARY

Put on the Ballot by Petition Signatures

Classifies app-based drivers as “independent contractors,” instead of “employees,” and provides independent-contractor drivers other compensation, unless certain criteria are met. Fiscal Impact: Minor increase in state income taxes paid by rideshare and delivery company drivers and investors.

WHAT YOUR VOTE MEANS

YES A YES vote on this measure means: App-based rideshare and delivery companies could hire drivers as independent contractors. Drivers could decide when, where, and how much to work but would not get standard benefits and protections that businesses must provide employees. 

NO A NO vote on this measure means: App-based rideshare and delivery companies would have to hire drivers as employees if the courts say that a recent state law makes drivers employees. Drivers would have less choice about when, where, and how much to work but would get standard benefits and protections that businesses must provide employees.

Proposition 22 passed with a 58.6% majority in a state that rejected Donald Trump by a wide margin (64% for Biden and 34% for Trump). This result is consistent with what I hope is true, namely that a majority of voters voted against Trump rather than embracing the more government dominated management of our lives promoted by the “socialist” wing of the Democratic party. With the more skillful and predictable management of a Biden administration and a Republican controlled Senate to block any excessive expansions of government, we might be lucky enough to keep the good measures taken over the past four years (tax reform, reduction of excessive regulations, strengthening the courts, and no new wars) and get rid of the anti-market, protectionist, executive overreach, and internationally disruptive measures of an ineffective and dishonest bully.

Saving our free society

The vast majority of every new generation want to make society a better place. They support policies that they believe will contribute to making society fairer and “nicer.” As they age their altruism may tilt toward self-enrichment and self-protection at the expense of fairness (cronyism), but initially their motives are pure. The key issue is what policies they believe will help make society a better place. “The-search-of-purpose-nature-and-nurture-genes-and-culture”

We can be thankful that American voters in throwing out a dishonest, divisive, egomaniac didn’t endorse the socialist wing of the Democratic Party.  We seem to have moved back to the broad center.  “Dan Mitchell–a victory for Biden-a defeat for the left”  It is hard to know where to look for and find the truth today, and our society will suffer because of that.  But as we review and debate the policy proposals of a Biden administration, we must remember that we are all looking for the truth about what will make our society better (fairer, freer, and more virtuous).  We must listen to each other’s concerns and carefully evaluate each other’s proposals. But we have a duty to ourselves and our neighbors to study history for what has worked and what hasn’t and to do our best to understand why limited government and maximum reliance on our own decisions and the decisions of our neighbors is the best framework in which to help make society better.

The growing number of today’s youth who look favorably at socialism (whatever they understand that to be) is worrying because it reflects an incorrect assessment of what socialism has always delivered. To today’s youth: If you really care about making society better, take the time to study the history of socialism and learn why it failed and is bound to fail and why societies that are freer and law abiding are both more virtuous and more prosperous. “Socialism-as-seen-by-millennials”