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/

Why some still believe the Big Lie

Last Monday (May 3) Trump proclaimed that the 2020 election “will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” In reply Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted: “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system. 10:27 AM · May 3, 2021·       “More on Trump acquittal”

The voter frauds loudly proclaimed by Trump spokesmen in public were generally not repeated in court where those making such claims had to speak under oath. Where specific charges of vote tampering were made against voting machine companies such as Dominion Voting Systems, the objects of such attacks were protected by libel laws, which required proof, which was totally lacking. Libel suits brought by Dominion and others led to retractions and apologies by Fox news and many others for their fabrications.

“The latest legal target to tuck its tail is the conservative cable news channel Newsmax, which released a statement Friday night apologizing to Eric Coomer, a top official at Dominion Voting Systems, who filed a suit against Newsmax in December.” “Slow painful death-trump allies voting machine conspiracy theories”

My favorite “apology” for falsely claiming voter fraud was from Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s shameless lawyers until even he had to distance himself from her.  “A key member of the legal team that sought to steal the 2020 election for Donald Trump is defending herself against a billion-dollar defamation lawsuit by arguing that “no reasonable person” could have mistaken her wild claims about election fraud last November as statements of fact.” “Sidney Powell-Trump election fraud claims”

I have struggled to understand how presumably decent people could continue to believe such obvious nonsense. The conservative Christian writer David French provides a partial explanation. “Prophecy is very important in Pentecostal Christianity…. Many millions of Americans spent the Trump era deeply loyal to Trump not because of policy arguments or political debate, but in large part because “prophets” told them he was specifically and specially anointed by God for this moment. These Americans were resistant to the election outcome because they were told—again and again—by voices they trusted that God promised Trump would win.”  “Making prophecy great again”  French is an interesting and thoughtful writer, and correctly notes that this belief is a problem for the Pentecostal church. 

But many more than these Pentecostals continue to repeat the big lie. According to Michael Gerson: “To be a loyal Republican, one must be either a sucker or a liar. And because this defining falsehood is so obviously and laughably false, we can safely assume that most Republican leaders who embrace it fall into the second category.” “Trump republicans big lie”

We have many serious policy issues to discuss. We seriously need to get beyond The Big Lie.

What to do with Social Media?

Social media is changing how we get news and debate public issues. How should its contents be regulated and by whom? The answer should reflect the fundamental importance of free and open speech for forming broadly supported public policies and social attitudes.

The quality of public discussion in the United States today has deteriorated. There are even some who wish to end debate on some issues altogether (the cancel culture). Take two recent examples:

In reaction to Georgia’s new Voting Rights Act President Biden said: “Parts of our country are backsliding into the days of Jim Crow, passing laws that harken back to the era of poll taxes — when Black people were made to guess how many beans, how many jelly beans, in a jar or count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they could cast their ballot.” “Biden US backsliding-Jim Crow”

Representative Maxine Waters traveled to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, to join crowds protesting the police shooting of Duante Wright. On that occasion, “A reporter then asked, if Chauvin isn’t convicted on all charges, “What should protesters do?”

“Well, we gotta stay on the street,” Waters said. “And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

For her complete comments see: “In her own words-Maxine Waters”

In response to Water’s words Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:

_________________________________  

@RepMaxineWaters you don’t live in Minnesota.

You crossed state lines and incited riots, violence against police, shootings at the MN NG, and threatened a jury as a sitting US Congresswoman.@SpeakerPelosi surely you will expel this criminal from Congress and uphold the law! pic.twitter.com/twH52VwFTP

— Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) April 19, 2021

_________________________________ 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene says Maxine Waters incited riots calls for her expulsion from congress”

‘Maxine Waters-Kevin McCarthy Minnesota police”

President Biden’s and Representative Greene’s comments both earn four Pinocchios. Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about Waters’ statement were just as bad. But then we are used to politicians lying to us, especially in the heat of campaigns. However, they do not contribute to the constructive dialog needed over these and other pressing public issues.  

With regard to Georgia’s new Voting Law, assessments are mixed. For example: “Rather than allowing voters to request ballots six months from Election Day, the new law says voters can start requesting ballots 78 days out; counties can begin sending ballots to voters just 29 days before Election Day, rather than the previous 49 days.” “Georgia voting law explained”

This hardly strikes me as voter suppression. I grew up in Bakersfield California and our voting precinct voted in our garage. As a kid I was fascinated by it all (though not thrilled with having to clean the garage for the occasion). There was no such thing as early voting except for absentee ballets by military service men and women. No drop boxes or any of that stuff. You came to our garage on election day or you didn’t vote. But there is surely a place for serious pros and cons of each provision of the law. As the press has been overwhelmingly (almost hysterically) negative (despite Georgia’s Governor and Secretary of State’s refusal to yield to Trump’s pressure to overturn his election defeat in Georgia) here is a more measured defense of the new law: “Exclusive 21 black leaders defend Georgia voting law as proper honest reform”

The real question is why were changes in Georgia’s voting law needed in the first place? What weaknesses were being addressed? Even with this new law, Georgia’s law is more permissive than those of Biden’s Delaware. In a negative, but more balanced assessment, Derek Thompson stated that:  “Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.” “Georgia voting rights fiasco”

Maxine Waters didn’t, and often doesn’t, use the best judgement in where, when and what she said, but she didn’t say anything that she should not be allowed to say whether you agree with her or not.  Referring to Reps. Waters and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, Newt Gingrich wrote that:

“House Democrats have produced two radical demagogues whose policies would endanger the lives of innocent Americans, lead to the breakdown of society, and undermine the U.S. Constitution.”  “Repudiate Tlaib and Waters promote mob rule Newt Gingrich” This is precisely the sort of name calling that impedes the serious dialogue over concrete issues and proposals that we so badly need. Demonizing opponents–turning opponents into enemies–is a tactic of the weak (think Vladimir Putin).

Rep Waters’ charge that protesters should get more confrontational did not strike me as an incitement to violence anymore (and rather less) than former President Trump’s call for his assembled supporters on January 6 to march to the Capital and “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The brief submitted by Trump’s lawyers for his impeachment trail stated the “his call for the crowd to ‘fight like hell,’ was not meant to be taken literally.” OK, then perhaps he should keep it to himself. This reminds me of my favorite “apology” for lying about voter fraud that kept Trump from remaining in the White House. In response to a liable suit by the voting software company Dominion Voting Systems,  Sidney Powell stated in court that “’no reasonable person would conclude’ that her accusations of Dominion being part of an election-rigging scheme with ties to Venezuela ‘were truly statements of fact.’” “Sidney Powell-Dominion-No reasonable person”  Sadly I know some very fine people who did (or do) believe her nonsense.

But what if Biden’s, Trump’s, Waters’ and Greene’s comments were suppressed–erased–rather than challenged? These were opinions, however off the mark, rather than statements of fact. What if someone (named Trump) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus not eligible to run for President (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary)? I will spare you the very long list of such lies. And, to finally get to my real topic, what should social media do about it?  

Unlike newspapers and magazines, which are responsible for the accuracy of their content, Facebook and Twitter and Tiktok (I am too old to be current with all of the other newer platforms) “merely” provide the vehicle by which its users (you and me) distribute our content. The government does have laws that limit speech.  “Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats….and defamation that causes harm to reputation….”  “United States free speech exceptions”. What is not legally allowed generally, should not be allowed on social media. But in my opinion, those are the only restrictions that should be allowed in the law.  The last thing we want is Nancy Pelosi or Ten Cruz deciding what is allowed and not allowed on Twitter.

In short, beyond speech that is already restricted by law, the government should leave social media free to set their own policies for what they permit on their platforms.  But what should those policies be? In my opinion, all opinions should be allowed, even those, and especially those, that the platform operators consider wrong or repugnant. Bad policy prescriptions should best be countered by counter arguments not by censorship. It is not possible to over emphasize the benefit to America of free and open debate. Bad ideas are best countered and refuted by good ideas.  You are not likely to find a better statement of these views and a better defense of free speech than in Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

But what about clearly fake news? Unfortunately, the distinction between fact and opinion is not always 100 percent clear. Tweeter should not have removed Donald Trump’s pages, though full of lies. Facebook should not have removed QAnon’s totally ridiculous conspiracy claims to take another extreme example. Many far less controversial posts have been removed as well for very unclear reasons. Facebook and other social media are working diligently to strike the right balance but are not there yet in my opinion. When Facebook or other social media platforms have good reason to doubt facts posted on their platforms, rather than remove (censure) them it would be better for Facebook to attach its warning and perhaps a link to more reliable information.

If Facebook (or any other platform) chooses to forbid hate speech, it would be better to rely on user complaints than its AI algorithm to determine what is hate speech. In an amusing, but not so amusing, example of the pitfalls of reliance on programmatic detection of disallowed speech, Facebook removed a post of a section of the Declaration of Independence because of its “nasty” reference to American Indians.  “Facebook censored a post for hate speech-it was the Declaration of Independence”

It is often argued that given the realities of network externalities (everyone wants to be where everyone else is), Facebook and Twitter are virtual monopolies and that this justifies more intrusive government regulation.  But the competition has expanded to include at the top of the list: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Even Trump plans to launch his own platform. Facebook and the other popular platforms must ultimately please their users or they will be replaced even if network externalities are hard to overcome. It has happened before and can happen again. Government intervention to regulate platform content beyond the restrictions already in the law would be contrary to our traditional freedom of speech and potentially dangerous.

There are measures that the government might take to make competition easier. When phone companies were required to give ownership of phone numbers to the subscriber, making them easily portable from one phone company to another, competition received an important boost. Something similar might be done with social media data of users (e.g., username, friends, pictures and posts).

A much more challenging area concerns social media algorithms for directing users to others with similar interests (or beliefs) in order to better target the advertising that pays for it all. If users only see or hear the views of the likeminded, unhealthy ego chambers can be created and promulgated. Agreeing on constructive approaches to dealing with this danger will require more public discussion.

Summary: Demonizing political opponents is bad for democracy. Opponents are not enemies. There needs to be enough common ground for most of us to stand on if we are to remain a viable country. Free speech has been a very important feature of America and its flourishing. It is best to protect free speech and counter misinformation and bad ideas with rebuttal and better ideas. No opinion should be censured. Social media should flag questionable information rather than remove.

A liberal dad complained about the one-sided liberal (in the American rather than classical sense) education his children had received in college because, he said, “they are completely unable to defend what they believe.”

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.

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”

Saving the American Dream

The American Dream is under attack.

“The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work….” “The American Dream is to succeed by work, rather than by birth”. The Dream has attracted the world’s best and brightest to our shores making America the world’s leading economic powerhouse and enabling us to live freely as we each determine what we are willing to work for, for ourselves and our families.

Historically, individuals have been limited in what they could achieve by where they were born in society, by their parent’s position in life, and by who they knew. Companies of individuals were limited by the restrictions placed on them by their governments, often by the protections from competition government granted their friends (crony capitalism). Such traditional societies limited the freedom and ambitions of its citizens and limited the productivity of its human and physical resources. In short, traditional societies were keep poorer than they would have been if their citizens had been freer to innovate and compete.

The American Dream is now under attack by Donald Trump’s trade protectionism, crony capitalist government favoritism, immigration walls, and weakening of the international rule of law that has extended the benefits of specialization and trade globally. It is also being attacked by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (LOC’s) vision of state leadership and control of production and a new generation of idealistic, but uninformed, voters who mean well but have missed the lessons of socialism’s failures. If we are to save the conditions in the United States in which the American Dream still lives, we must better understand what has led so many Americans to vote against it.

I am sure that the answers to that question are many and complex, but broadly speaking two stand out in my mind, both of which point to the measures needed to restore support for the dream.

The first is to better educate the public, especially its younger members, about the conditions that allow and encourage a productive, innovative economy. This includes understanding the proper role of government in protecting private property, enforcing contracts, maintaining public safety (the rule of law) and in providing the public infrastructure that facilitates private activities and commerce (the commons of public goods). It includes the lessons of why all socialist economies have failed as a result of the corrupting incentives of state direction of economic activity rather than the competitive search by profit seeking private enterprises for better ways to serve the public.

The second answer concerns the adequacy and efficiency of our social safety net. The American Dream concerns individuals who take responsibility for their own well-being. While on average this has opened the way for most to prosper to the extent of their talents and energy, some will, often through no fault of their own, fail and fall off the tightrope. Society has an interest (even beyond the obvious humanitarian one) in softening the fall. It has an interest in an effective social safety net. 

Some–those who have not understood the lessons of socialism’s failures–have looked to trade and immigration restriction to prevent them from losing their jobs. They object to the economic benefits of free trade when it means that they must look for a new job (however, most manufacturing job losses in the U.S. have resulted from technical progress and the resulting increase in productivity rather than from cross border trade). “Econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms”  “Trade-protection-and-corruption” Those with such views have supported Trump’s anti free market policies. They have been attracted by Trump’s “I win you lose, us vs them” rhetoric.

AOC and her friends point to the widening income inequality–the dramatic increase in the incomes of the wealthiest and the stagnation of the incomes of the middle class in recent years–and demand income redistribution. But she fails to understand that it has been the growth of government’s role in the economy and the incentives in big government toward corruption and crony capitalism (protectionism for the wealthy) that have reduced competition and protected the position and markets of the biggest companies with friends in government. Socialism would make those incentives even stronger.

America’s dynamism and success reflects the creative destruction of risk-taking entrepreneurs and their hard-working employees.  https://economics.mit.edu/files/1785  However, the workers whose jobs are displaced by new products and new technologies may need help in finding and retraining for new jobs. They may need financial assistance in between (unemployment insurance). If nothing else, this may be the cost of their support for such a dynamic system.  Our social safety net sometimes provides poor incentives and sometimes has holes. It is time to seriously consider replacing it with a less intrusive and more comprehensive Universal Basic Income.  “Our-social-safety-net”  “Replacing-Social-Security-with-a-Universal-Basic-Income”

The American Dream–the foundation of our freedom and affluence–is under attack from the left and the right. We should fight to preserve (or restore) it.

Buy American

Buy American is un-American. Much if not most of what we already buy is American, meaning made in America. Though it would be rather challenging to identify products (leaving aside services) that are 100 percent made in American, i.e. that do not have at least some components produced abroad, 85% of U.S. GDP is domestically produced. So why is the slogan “buy American” un-American?

Buy American has several understandings. There are laws, such as the Buy American Act of 1933, that require the U.S. government to give preference to American goods and services over others in its purchases. To the extent such laws have any effect, they require the purchase of goods and services that would not otherwise be chosen–that would not otherwise meet the test of the best value for the taxpayers’ dollars. This law aims to protect American jobs. This, of course, is a misunderstanding of the reality. Buy American, when it changes behavior at all, protects some undeserving jobs at the expense of other jobs that are worth keeping.  It protects jobs producing goods and services that would not otherwise be profitable. In short, it keeps American workers employed in activities that are less productive than would otherwise be the case. In the long run, it does not increase employment but rather reallocates workers to less productive tasks. In short, buy American lowers our standard of living. Thus, we can be thankful that it only requires 51% domestic content to qualify as “American.”

So why does our current government adopt such policies? For the same reason we have slapped a tariff on Canadian steel. It is not to make the American economy more productive or to keep it fully employed (which it already was when President Trump imposed such a tariff for “national security” reasons (I kid you not).  Rather, like other “protectionist” measures, it is to protect the jobs of particular, favored industries or workers, or what you might call political corruption.  Such favored industries are not competitive without such protection or why bother.

Beyond the legal requirement for government to Buy American, the plea to the general public is voluntary.  But why should we purchase products that we otherwise would not have (because they were more expensive or inferior)?  As with government buying American, the effect is to draw workers into activities at which they are less productive than they would have been otherwise. So “Buy American” is un-American because, if taken seriously, it would lower our standard of living and is contrary to the free market and entrepreneurial spirit that has made America the prosperous society that it is.

Supply Chains

When politicians and pundit refer to trade or supply chains, they invariable mean cross border trade or supply chains.  This is a mistake. President Trump recently provided a particularly nonsensical example:

“In Washington, President Trump lambasted corporate America for “these stupid supply chains” and said the pandemic had proven him right on the need to bring factories home.

“We have a supply chain where they’re made in all different parts of the world. And one little piece of the world goes bad and the whole thing is messed up,” he told Fox Business in May. “I said we shouldn’t have supply chains. We should have them all in the United States.” “Coronavirus-globalization-manufacturing”

Trade occurs whenever you sell your labor or whatever you produce and buy what you need from others. Trade starts at your doorstep and without it you would starve to death. Supply chains exist whenever you purchase inputs to whatever you (or the firm you work for) are making from someone else rather than making every component yourself. If you are a carpenter, you buy your tools from someone else.

You might think that you should confine trade and/or associated supply chains to your family or your village for some reason, but you would give up the efficiencies of greater specialization when trading more widely (maybe even across national borders). And such restrictions would lower–potentially significantly lower–your income and standard of living as well as the incomes of your trading partners.

This does not mean that there are no risks in relying on others to produce some of what you want. If there is only one source of what you buy, you risk going without if that source stops producing. But that is rarely the case. I briefly thought it might be for toilet paper in March when the supermarket t-paper shelves were empty for a few weeks. But I bought some on line from China and it was delivered to my door.

Manufacturers whose supply chains have only one source are taking a risk for whatever efficiency they enjoy. Having multiple suppliers or supply options is a form of insurance and is generally wise.  But it makes little sense for a Southern California manufacturer who buys some of its inputs from across the border in Mexico to be forced to shift its supply chain to Pennsylvania in order to have it “in the United States.” Transportation costs would be higher and with greater risk of weather or other transportation disruption. On the other hand, relying on the much closer source across a national border has the risk of an unpredictable President imposing a tax (tariff) on imports from Mexico. Our wise constitution prevents him from doing so on interstate commerce.  

The uncertainty of today’s world is causing firms to reevaluate the risks of long supply chains. That is prudent, but insisting that everything be produced and purchased within the United States is nonsensical and harmful for everyone involved.