Normative Narratives


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Save the EU, (So it Can Help) Save the World

Two Birds, One Stone

The first round of the French Presidential Election saw anti-EU Marine Le Pen advance to the second round runoff. Her defeat there is not the foregone conclusion many think it is–we have all seen this movie before.

Regardless of the outcome of the election or any future “Frexit” vote, European geography won’t change; Russia will still be an aggressor, and the Middle East will remain a volatile neighboring region. Countries on the European continent need a viable joint security plan. For countries that remain in the EU, a new economic plan is needed to stop these exit movements from gaining popular support.

Three interconnected problems seriously undermine the future of the EU–economic, security, and cultural. Economic contraction from the Great Recession / European Debt Crisis, met with austerity policies, has led to high unemployment and stretched social services. A weak military (partially caused by austerity but primarily the result of historic over-reliance on the US) has left Europe unable to act decisively on regional security issues, resulting in an influx of refugees. The arrival of refugees coincided with an increase in terrorist attacks and exacerbated economic insecurity, fueling strong anti-refugee sentiments across the continent. Given the long-term inability of mainstream politicians to remedy these problems, it is not surprising that once fringe populists offering simple solutions have emerged as a real threat to the future of the EU.

One would think the success of anti-EU movements would prompt a strong response from the block. Unfortunately, it seems like business as usual in Brussels. EU negotiators just demanded a huge 3.5% primary surplus of Greece for an indefinite period of time in exchange for bailout funds, even as it grapples with 23.5% unemployment (almost 50% for young people).

The solution to these interconnected problems, although not pretty, is clear–exempt defense and security spending increases from Greece’s budget surplus target. In general, exempt defense and security spending increases from EU budget rules. These rules are often disregarded anyways, but bailout countries like Greece do not have this flexibility. The result is the poorest countries are forced to accept the most growth-constricting policies.

For Euro countries, make cheap ECB funds available to finance such spending. Security provides a common benefit, so its only fair that the costs be reduced by the common strength of the European economy.

The old saying “war is a rich man’s game but a poor mans fight” is an unfortunate economic reality. US servicemen and women come primarily from lower income families, and this plan would appeal most to the poorest Europeans. But there are, however, benefits to both society and individuals to having stronger armies in the EU. A stronger force can act as a deterrent, discouraging bad actors from, well, acting badly. When preventative peacebuilding, diplomacy, and deterrence fail, a strong army can act decisively in a “just war”. The economic benefits realized by military families are real, and can contribute to economic growth and opportunity.

It is not my intention to glorify war, there are many downsides to it; using force should always be the last option, but for global powers it must be an option. I also want to be very clear, this is not a call for conscription. Those who do not wish to serve in their country’s armed or homeland security forces will of course be free to pursue other options.

Not Ideal, But a Chance to be Real

Ideally, fiscally conservative EU countries would just allow poorer countries to engage in stimulus spending attuned to their specific needs. But almost 10 years after the Great Recession, there is little reason to believe this is the case. In fact, Greece’s recent bailout terms are evidence to the contrary.

Ideally, EU defense and security spending would align with the risks facing its members. But despite terrorist attacks at home, Russian aggression at it’s doorstep, and regional instability in the neighboring Middle East, only marginal steps have been taken on this front.

Eventually “ideally” no longer works. Within the complex bureaucratic framework of the EU, pursuing the ideal has resulted in inaction, which has proven to be the worst course of action of them all. Everything is pointing towards inadequate defense and security spending by EU countries. Europe’s security blanket (the U.S.) is now taking a harder line on defense contributions. It is past time for EU leaders to act decisively before the block becomes irreversibly damaged.

As with any major program there are many specifics to be worked out. For instance, how to maximize the resources that go to “labor” (troops, homeland security forces, intelligence officials) as opposed to large “capital” items (aerial bombers and drones for example), without compromising the objective of improved military and security capabilities.

The proposed solution is a just starting point. But it is the starting point for an idea that can solve multiple problems, and should have support from a wide range of politicians–anti-austerity liberals, populists, and neoconservatives. It is also a relatively simple solution itself, so it should play well with blue-collar voters who are fed up with ineffective technocratic solutions.

I am not calling for a global military buildup. Increased military spending by the EU should be met with decreasing military spending in the US. As I have consistently said, Trump’s pressure on EU countries to increase defense spending has been a rare positive for his administration, but would be a wasted opportunity if coupled with the huge increase in defense spending in his proposed budget.

 


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Understanding Conservative Ideology on Economic Opportunity–“I Didn’t Need It” & “I Didn’t Get It”

I was blessed with an incredibly supportive family, in both emotional and financial terms–I was and still am very lucky. Still I faced many obstacles growing up, so I can only imagine the difficulties faced by others. To err is human, particularly for young people without positive role models. Those less fortunate have much less margin for error, meaning one screw-up (of which I had many) can derail their lives.

Both political parties claim they want to promote economic opportunity. Where the parties diverge, and understandably so considering how open the concept is to interpretation, is how to achieve “equality of opportunity”.

To progressive liberals, there can never be enough investment in economic opportunity. The lifecycle approach to human development stipulates that for one to reach their full potential, investments need to be made at every stage of life: nutritional food early in life to support physical and cognitive development, universal pre-K and good public schooling through high school, affordable college options and job (re)training programs into adulthood. All the while, affordable healthcare is needed to guard against the unforeseen and get people back on their feet.

All else equal, I think most people would agree these things are important–they certainly were in my life. Look at any well-to-do family and regardless of their political leanings, you will see parents making these investments to ensure their kids have the best shot at succeeding in life (nepotism aside).

Where many conservatives claim they draw the line is how these programs will be paid for. But it is not only in the name of fiscal responsibility that conservatives balk at such programs. If that was the case, they would not have elected a President whose policies are expected to increase government debt by trillions of dollars over the next decade.

Some conservatives may actually fear more competition, and therefore actively resist policies that promote equality of opportunity. But such people, I think, represent a small minority of conservatives.

Many conservatives I know are good, hard working people. They believe they are promoting the best interests of the poor, and that liberal policies are creating a sort of poverty trap by encouraging laziness and discouraging hard work. All the aforementioned investments in young people are nice to have, so long as people have worked hard and are able to afford them. But how can we demand that something that is outside a child’s control–their parent’s economic situation–determine their access to the tools to success?

My understanding of conservative ideology on economic opportunity, beyond the veneer of fiscal responsibility, has been forming for some time. But it truly crystallized when I read about Dr. Ben Carson’s Secretary of HUD confirmation hearing:

…if confirmed by the Senate, he would enter public service with a background like few other cabinet officials in history, shaped profoundly by a childhood when public assistance meant survival and public housing was all around him.

Rather than embrace the programs that once sustained his family and the families around him, he has resolutely rejected them, adopting standard Republican beliefs that welfare fosters dependency.

The idea that social safety net programs foster dependency can be broken down into two arguments–“I didn’t need it” and “I didn’t get it”.

“I Didn’t Need It”

With a population well over 300 million people, America has people all along the “capacity to overcome hardship” spectrum.

At one extreme there are people who have resigned themselves to a life of antisocial behavior, and no amount of intervention can change that. Liberals have to come to terms with the fact that even well developed, well intended government programs have their limitations. It is also unreasonable to expect the taxpayer to pay for the raft of programs needed to replicate the safety net my family provided me.

At the other extreme there are people like Dr. Carson, who can overcome any obstacle and reach extraordinary heights (often conveniently forgetting the role government programs played in their success). It is, however, unrealistic to expect everyone to have Ben Carson’s intellectual capacity and resilience. Conservatives must place the bar at a realistic level, or else the “equality” in “equality of opportunity” will never become a reality.

The extremes at either end of the spectrum represent a small portion of the population–think normal distribution on a bell curve (see below). The policies that promote equality of opportunity should not be tailored to either of these extremes, but rather towards a hypothetical “reasonable” person–one who wants to succeed, is receptive to and grateful for help, and can progress through life with minimal setbacks (keeping in mind that no one is perfect).

normadist

It is also important to understand that inadequate investment is not necessarily money saved. There are costs associated with underinvestment, mainly:

  • Lower future earnings.According to one [UNICEF] study conducted over a 20-year period, disadvantaged children who participated in quality early development programmes as toddlers later went on to make up to 25 per cent more as adults than their peers who did not receive the same support.” This also means less tax revenue and higher spending on welfare programs in the future.
  • Higher future spending on our criminal justice system. In other words, higher crime and a less safe country for all Americans. While I am in no way condoning a life of crime in the face of poverty, that does not stop it from being the life some lead.

These negative consequences should factor into how much we, as a country, are willing to invest in promoting equality of opportunity. Isn’t a dollar spent enabling one to realize their potential better than a dollar spent dealing with the negative consequences of systematic underinvestment?

Social immobility in America shows that more work remains to be done. Recognizing that anecdotal stories of rags-to-riches does not mean that we have achieved “equality of opportunity” is a good starting point. After all, accepting there is a problem is the first step towards finding a solution.

“I Didn’t Get It”

This is, in my opinion, a less defensible position. At least those in the “I didn’t need it” camp can claim that further investment is not needed. The “I didn’t get it” camp is just bitter; instead of asking themselves “would this be a good program?”, they are just sour because it didn’t exist for them.

But shaming these people does no good, it only drives them further into their intransigence. Therefore, it is up to progressive politicians to sell programs that promote equality of opportunity as something that benefits everyone, not just direct recipients.

People must be made to understand that proposed policies will help people of all races who have fallen behind in the modern economy. To this end policies and programs that promote opportunity should be race-blind and socioeconomic based, to counter the “us versus them” mentality behind much conservative opposition.

Progressive politicians must also learn to bridge generational divides. One way to do this is to frame adequate investments in today’s youth as a means of paying for the Social Security and Medicare benefits that many upcoming retirees are depending on.

Understanding as an Avenue Towards Progress

It is frustratingly difficult to prioritize between programs that promote opportunity at different stages of life. On one hand it is more politically viable and cost-effective to invest in programs that target young children. On the other hand it takes longer for these investments to pay off, and politics is inherently shortsighted. While investments should probably be skewed towards early-life interventions, they cannot fully substitute for programs targeting older groups (such as affordable college and job retraining).

There are elements of truth in both liberal and conservative ideologies. Hopefully through greater understanding we can stop talking past each other, and start talking to and working with one another. I know this may sound sound like hippy-dippy kumbaya bullshit, but it is really an appeal to pragmatism and foresight. Over the past 8 years hyperpartisanship has led to ineffective governance. As the government failed to respond to people’s needs, people lost faith in the government. This paved the way for a regressive and ineffectual demagogue to take power, which ultimately benefits no one.

I understand that one party–the G.O.P–was a much larger culprit in creating this hyperpartisan environment. As the new minority party the Democrats have to decide whether they will continue driving our government down this dangerous path, or try rise above it. The G.O.P. went low, will the Democrats go high? Do they even want to? I sure hope they do; politics should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I leave you with this Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote from a speech delivered in 1932, whose words still ring as true today as the day they were spoken:

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

This is not to say the Democratic party should be anti-intellectual, or willfully ignore historic experience and scientific consensus. It does not mean it should not stick to its principles and have red-lines. If Trump’s first week in office is any indication, there will be plenty to oppose without being blindly obstructionist. By carefully picking its battles, the Democratic party will have more political capital and public support when there is a core issue it really must fight for.


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Trump’s Strategy: Possible Short-Term Gains, Definite Long-Term Pains

Image result for trumps long term damage

There is always a lag between when a policy is enacted and when its true long-term consequences are felt. This reality often works against societal wellbeing, as politicians pursue policies that are damaging in the long-run if they make them more popular here and now.

This shortsighted behavior is reinforced by the electorate. The combination of more pressing issues in their own lives, imperfect memory, and a lack of technical knowledge result in the voters not holding politicians accountable for the long-term consequences of their policies. When things come crashing down on someone else’s watch they are considered the fault of the person currently in charge, regardless of the root cause. One does not have to look far back to find two prime examples–President Obama inheriting the Great Recession and the turmoil in the Middle East.

The most obvious example of President-elect Trump’s shortsightedness is his stance on Climate Change. Trump has called Climate Change a hoax. He has stated he wants to overturn Obama’s signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan, which is also central to meeting America’s commitments under the Paris Climate Accord (the 194 nation pact covering all major emitters, which Trump has vowed to drop out of). His pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change skeptic–the fox is guarding the hen house.

Leasing public lands to private companies seems cartoonishly short-sighted. In the most extreme scenario, imagine a National Park being turned into a natural gas field, depriving future generations of its beauty. Unfortunately, this may be what the G.O.P is planning.

Trump’s War on Climate Change toolkit also features intimidation. His Department of Energy transition team asked the DoE for a list of employees who work on climate change related issues, to which one employee (who declined to comment for fear of reprisal) remarked “This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list.” The DoE, for it’s part, has rebuffed the request, but who knows what will happen once Rick Perry is running the show. As a self-proclaimed “jobs President”, Trump should not do anything that could compromise America’s position as a leader in the emerging clean energy economy (a position coveted by a country Trump has promised to be tough on–China).

While environmental considerations are the most obvious example, they are far from the only shortsighted policies Trump has embraced. If he does not change his campaign promises, his fiscal and national security policies will prove equally as shortsighted.

Trumped-Up Trickle-Down Economics

While damaging in the long-run, Trump’s policies will not necessarily lead to an immediate recession, a point made in a recent article by Paul Krugman. As Krugman points out, even poorly designed fiscal stimulus has a positive impact on short-run growth.

Even if Trump’s policies do result in short-run growth, this does not mean the average American will benefit. In fact, if recent history is any indicator, Trump’s reliance on trickle-down economics to improve the lives of average Americans is all but sure to fail. If wages continue to stagnate (Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor has opposed anything resembling a livable minimum wage or expanding overtime pay), or if consumer prices rise dramatically due to Trump’s inflationary fiscal and protectionist trade policies, people may well feel the pain sooner rather than later.

Perhaps Trump, in all his deal-making brilliance, can buck the lessons of recent history and somehow make trickle-down economics work–I am highly skeptical. Even if he can, there are still the long-term ramifications of his economic agenda, which would outweigh any immediate benefits.

By greatly increasing the deficit—a certainty if his economic vision is implemented–Trump is pursuing the tried and failed “starve the beast” strategy. “Starve the beast” is a political strategy to cut taxes to deprive the federal government of revenue, in a deliberate effort to force it to reduce future spending.

Starving the beast is very dangerous; reducing “fiscal space” compromises the Government’s ability to respond to future economic downturns with stimulus spending to offset lower private sector demand. It also does not work–critical, broadly popular programs end up being financed through increased deficit spending. When push comes to shove, politicians will not risk losing support and widespread social instability in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But starving the beast can lead to underinvestment in certain areas by artificially creating a budgetary squeeze. Public R&D and investments in human capital development / productivity improvement are generally not considered “critical”, in that there are no immediate consequences for cutting them. Therefore, when budgets are tight, these are often the first programs on the chopping block. Such cuts erode America’s innovative capacity, compromising long-term economic growth.

National Security: Syria, the Islamic State and Beyond

No one knows exactly what course of action Trump will ultimately take with Syria, but we can make an educated guess based on his past comments. Trump has praised Saddam Hussein for being “good at killing terrorists“. He looks to improve relations with Vladimir Putin, Assad’s strongest backer. Most tellingly, Trump has said he will prioritize fighting the IS over fighting Assad. Taken together, these factors strongly suggest Trump will stop opposing Assad, if not directly support him in the fight against the IS.

In the short-run, backing Assad could make America safer by bringing stability to Syria, allowing the international community to focus on defeating the IS. Of course this strategy could also backfire by giving more fuel to anti-American parties in region, attracting more international terrorist attacks and inspiring domestic lone-wolf attackers.

But let’s just say, for arguments sake, that the IS already considers the U.S. its primary enemy, and is already doing all it can to attack America. Even if this is true, Trump’s strategy is still flawed. By failing to consider the root causes of the current instability of the Middle East—poor, unaccountable governance—Trump’s strategy will exacerbate the regions problems and create new ones.

In the long-run, not opposing Assad will embolden others to follow his playbook for staying in power at any cost. Rollbacks in human rights and governance will create future civil wars, resulting in power vacuums. From these power vacuums new terrorists groups will emerge, threatening America’s safety (with even more fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda). The only people this strategy will ultimately benefit are those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Humanitarian spending will also continue to rise from already historic levels if Trump abandons preventative peacebuilding through trade, development aid, and democratic capacity building in favor of aligning with dictators.

To be fair, when it comes to the Syrian Civil War, there are no good options. There are, however, worse options. Based on what he has said, and who he has nominated to be his national security adviser, Trump seems primed to pursue these worse options.

The Marks of a True Leader

All politicians must balance short-term needs with longer-term considerations. Focus too much on the long-run, and people will suffer in the short-run–to quote John Maynard Keynes, “in the long-run, we’re all dead”. But when it comes to Donald Trump, who has shown himself to be especially thin-skinned (constantly alleging media bias, demanding apologies from Broadway actors, attacking comedic parodies on SNL), whose main consideration has seemingly always been status and popularity, one can only imagine how greatly he will discount any future damage his policies might cause in order to look good now.

It is one thing to have policies not meet their intended long-term goals due to unanticipated consequences or unforeseeable changes in the world. But in the case of Trump’s proposed policies, the writing is right there on the wall. It is not that the Obama administration did not consider these “fixes”, it is that their negative consequences were deemed to be too great.

The other shoe will drop–it is a question of when, not if. Trump is counting on the negative consequences occurring on someone else’s watch, when they will be someone else’s problem. But what if they occur sooner than expected, while he is still in power? Well, there’s a scapegoat for that, and Trump has already proven himself to be a master scapegoater.

True leadership requires finding the right balance between short-term needs and longer-term considerations. It requires thick-skin, and the willingness to do what is right even when it is not popular. A good leader owns up to their failures and learns from their mistakes–there is not an ounce of accountability or introspection in Donald Trump.

Leaders can also benefit from a strong team with diverse opinions—people who challenge their views in order to create more robust, sustainable solutions. Throughout his campaign, Trump said he would appoint the best team possible to make up for his lack of governing experience. Looking at Trump’s current Cabinet nominees, I see mostly self-serving yes-men.

Based on these (and most other) definitions of leadership, President-elect Trump seems to be the furthest thing from a true leader imaginable.

It is important to identify and call out Trump’s shortsighted strategy now. People will point to immediate successes, should they come to pass, as vindication of his policy choices and governing style. Such celebrations would be premature.


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Equality of Opportunity, Invention and Growth: The Next President’s Fiscal Policy

Equality of Opportunity and Economic Growth

In case you’ve been living under a rock, it is election season in America. Both candidates have laid out their vision for America’s future, and they differ on many issues.

But on some issues the candidates agree. One example is taking advantage of low borrowing costs to invest in America’s aging infrastructure. Such a plan would create jobs, stimulating short-run growth while making America’s economy more efficient in the long-run. But with policy, the devil is in the details. Even on this area of agreement, the candidates proposed policies are very different. As has often been the case, Trump’s plan is short on specifics and is not fully funded, casting doubts on its effectiveness while increasing the deficit (more on this later).

But another piece of the economic puzzle, one that is as important to America’s long-run growth as infrastructure, is also sorely underinvested in. I am referring to human capital (education, healthcare). There are many ways to promote investment in human capital–more on the how later. First, lets examine why investing in human capital is important.

Simply put, investing in human capital is a key driver of invention, and invention is the main driver of long-run growth. This is a purposefully general statement–I do not have to know what the next paradigm shifting invention will be in order for this statement to be true.

Some people may counter that most inventions are technological in nature, and automation is leading to job loss. To that, I would say we cannot fear progress. Rather, our leaders need to figure out how to balance the need for economic growth with peoples need to be employed–how to “re-couple” the social and economic functions of the labor market. This may require some sort of large-scale guaranteed government / subsidized private sector jobs program–another debate for another day.

Back to invention. While there is no “formula” for discovering great inventions, invention does tend to flourish in certain contexts. Both the public and private sectors can spur the inventive process by investing in research and development. Strong property rights and judicial independence are needed to protect inventors, or else the incentive to invent is not there. A sound financial system is needed to match funding to good ideas, and various forms of infrastructure are needed for production and distribution.

But most importantly invention requires a well educated people, free to explore their novel ideas. The security that comes from decoupling health insurance from employment–as the ACA has done–also helps, by removing some of the risk of leaving one’s job to pursue an invention.

America has most of these things in spades. But one area America can do better (other than infrastructure) is promoting investment in human capital, particularly at younger ages and lower wealth brackets.

America’s top Universities are some of the best in the world, and we have a decent system for matching the most talented low income applicants to them. But research shows that earlier intervention is needed to truly promote equality of opportunity. The “lifecycle” approach to development states that much of the human development needed for people to realize their potential–including their innovative potential–occurs well before college. This is not to say the government should not prioritize making college more affordable. I am a proponent of free community college for low-income applicants with strong academic credentials. But college is only a part of the equality of opportunity equation.

For not only do we not know what the next great invention will be, we also do not know who will invent it. Therefore, it is the job of our government to create the largest possible base of potential future inventors. While the overwhelming majority of people will not go on to discover great inventions, well targeted investments earlier in life still benefit society by helping people maximize their future earnings (and tax bills), reducing poverty and crime (and future government spending on welfare programs and the criminal justice system).

You may be thinking, “this is all well and good in theory, but how will we pay for it all?” Aside from the higher tax revenues and savings resulting from such investments in the long-run, more immediate action should be taken to get the Federal government’s fiscal house in order.

NEEDED: Tax Then Entitlement Reform

Should interest rates on U.S. debt rise, interest payments would consume a large portion of government spending. While there is no guarantee the interest rates on U.S. debt will rise, given the global nature of contemporary investment and America’s status as a “safe haven”, it would be prudent to reduce the deficit if it can be done in a way that does not compromise economic growth and pose undue hardship on America’s poorest citizens.

Every taxpayer dollar spent servicing debt is a dollar that cannot be spent on something beneficial (human capital investment, infrastructure, defense, anything). It is in no ones interest to see this potential future come to pass, as almost everyone (except possibly Libertarians) believes there is something productive taxes could be spent on.

Responsibly closing the deficit requires both comprehensive (corporate and personal) tax and entitlement reform.

“Entitlement spending” consumes a large percentage of government spending, and for good reason–it meets important societal needs, often more efficiently than its private sector counterparts. Private sector pension coverage fell from 28% to 13% between 1993 and 2011, and private sector health insurance costs have historically risen faster than Medicaid. Due to the effectiveness of Medicaid and Social Security, they should arguably be expanded if we can figure out how to properly fund them (expanding the “public option” would help fix Obamacare, and there is a strong argument to be made for expanding Social Security to make up for the drop in people covered by private pension plans).

As a Nation, in order to have a meaningful debate about how much we can afford to spend (and on what), we have to know how much tax revenue we can expect to take in. Comprehensive tax reform endures for a long time–the last major tax reform was passed 30 years ago. Passing comprehensive tax reform would allow for meaningful revenue projections for the foreseeable future (exactly how long depends on how vigilantly Congress guards the tax code against unnecessary loopholes). Therefore, comprehensive tax reform should precede entitlement reform.

HOW to Promote Equality of Opportunity

Greater investment in human capital can be achieved in a number of ways. It can be achieved directly through new social programs, a few of which I proposed earlier, but in recent years such ideas have been political nonstarters.

With more money people will spend more in the short-run–promoting short-run growth–and invest more in themselves and their children–promoting long-run growth. But how do we get more money into peoples’ pockets without politically contentious social programs (i.e. redistribution)? A more politically viable (if admittedly less targeted) approach involves increasing the incomes of America’s less well-to-do through the labor market.

A market-based approach would include some combination of a higher minimum wage and an expanded earned income tax credit (EITC). These policies would be even more effective if paired with human capital investment programs that recognize the “lifecycle” approach to development. Both candidates claim they want to help low and middle class people, but upon examining their proposed policies, only Clinton’s would move this country the right direction.


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Obama’s Final UN General Assembly Address and the Next President’s Foreign Policy

Preventative Peacebuilding and U.N. Security Council Reform

Original article:

“Just as we benefit by combatting inequality within our countries, I believe advanced economies still need to do more to close the gap between rich and poor nations around the globe. This is difficult politically. It’s difficult to spend on foreign assistance. But I do not believe this is charity,” he [Obama] stressed.

“For the small fraction of what we spent at war in Iraq, we could support institutions so that fragile States don’t collapse in the first place; and invest in emerging economies that become markets for our goods. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do,” said Mr. Obama.

“We can only realize the promise of this institution’s founding – to replace the ravages of war with cooperation – if powerful nations like my own accept constraints,” Mr. Obama declared “Sometimes I’m criticized in my own country for professing a belief in international norms and multilateral institutions.

“But I am convinced that in the long run, giving up some freedom of action – not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term – enhances our security. And I think that’s not just true for us,” he added.

Obama’s final UN General Assembly address included a strong endorsement of preventative peacebuilding. This endorsement is the result of a hard-learned lesson–that investing in conflict prevention is much cheaper than fighting wars and/or paying for humanitarian aid to deal with the spillover of conflicts.

But Obama’s address also included a lukewarm-at-best embrace of UN Security Council reform. America need not worry about “giving up our ability to protect ourselves”–our military supremacy will continue to keep us safe from “traditional threats” (an invasion by an enemy army).

Security Council reform would address the source of the real threats facing America today–failed states and their resulting power vacuums. Failed states allow terrorist groups to take root, and either carry out their own attacks or inspire lone-wolf terrorists remotely.

The current UN Security Council structure shields oppressive dictators from accountability, allowing them to hold onto power as they lose control of their countries. By providing an avenue to override a UN Security council veto, the international community would be much more responsive in addressing failing states. Greater protection of democratic aspirations and human rights, through UN Security Council reform, should be how we “pursue our core interest”–peace and prosperity through economic interdependence.

The Future of American Foreign Policy

If Hilary Clinton is truly the heir apparent to Obama, hopefully she shares his views on preventative peacebuilding. Hillary has taken some flack from the left for being more of a neocon (interventionist) than Obama, but under the right conditions this is actually a good thing. Allow me to explain.

Preventative peacebuilding is a very important element of foreign policy–as previously mentioned it saves on future military and humanitarian spending, not to mention the lives saved and economic damage prevented in the host-countries. However, once a conflict is already underway (prevention is never foolproof), it must be addressed before it become intractable (a la Syria, the issue Obama say’s he has second-guessed the most of any during his presidency and for good reason, because his approach has failed spectacularly).

Trump is right about one (I stress, ONE) thing–our allies need to start paying their share to uphold global security. Furthermore, there must be repercussions for them not doing so, otherwise the status-quo of America footing the bill will persist (Obama’s denunciation of  “free-rider” allies is just rhetoric, it won’t accomplish anything).

This in NO WAY means I support Trump’s overall outlook on international affairs, which includes: praising strongmen like Putin and Saddam Hussein who undermine global security, alienating Muslim allies and providing fodder for terrorist propaganda with blanket statements about Islam, and pledging to dump more money into the military without any coherent plan of how to use it (which could actually harm servicemen and women, vets, and their families).

This last point means that Trump’s plan is not the rebalancing of global defense spending America so sorely needs, but rather a global military build-up. This stance counters the ultimate purpose–American lives and tax dollars saved–of his ONE good idea…

America’s future President should adopt a foreign policy that is a large part Obama (preventative peacebuilding), part Hillary Clinton (willingness to intervene before it is too late), and a little bit Trump (willingness to exert pressure on our allies to pay their fair share for global security). UN Security Council reform would bolster each of these pillars of American foreign policy.

No element of this foreign policy equation can be foregone if global security is to be upheld in a way that promotes sustainable development in the world’s poorest regions, while leaving America with enough resources to adequately and responsibly invest in its own future (its citizenry’s human capital and physical infrastructure).


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China’s Model of Economic Development Cannot be Exported to Africa

Cartoon: Panda Games (medium) by karlwimer tagged china,olympics,panda,bear,growth,progress,darfur,tibet,pollution,karl,wimer

Original article:

However, with China’s more recent rise, what has emerged instead is the so-called “China model” featuring authoritarian capitalism. China is actively promoting this new model of China’s political and economic development in Africa through political party training programs, which constitute a key component of Chinese foreign policy toward Africa.

China has seen remarkable economic growth in the past few decades. About 3/4 of the global  reduction in extreme poverty since the end of the Cold War can be attributed to China. But as impressive as its experience has been, China’s growth model cannot be exported to Africa.

Why not? China has a strong, stable central government and a huge population. Despite the inevitable levels of corruption resulting from an economy dominated by government investment and a civil society which is subservient to the government (lack of transparency, accountability / judicial independence / checks-and-balances, no freedom of press/assembly), the Communist Party is somewhat uniquely dedicated to investing in the human capital of its people and providing some semblance of a welfare system

These positive features that have fueled China’s growth are generally missing in African countries. African economies tend to be natural resource-based, which do not require investment in people for growth but rather patronage politics to keep ruling regimes in power. As a result, the African continent is dominated by poor governance, corruption, poverty and conflict.

China also happens to be reaching the limits of its government-investment and export fueled economic growth model. Because of the Communist Party’s unwillingness to expand civil liberties, China’s greatest avenue for sustainable growth –it’s people’s innovative potential (really the only avenue for long-term sustainable growth for any country, but especially China due to it’s huge population)–remains underutilized. In short, while China’s model can (in the best case scenario) bring a country from low to middle income, it cannot bridge the gap between middle and high income (and as previously stated, the conditions needed for the Chinese model to bring Africa into middle income-dom simply do not exist).

The Communist Party is facing resistance at home, due to the twin forces of increasing demands for political rights (an inevitable result of advances in communication technologies and globalization) and slowing economic growth. Instead of loosening its grip at home to promote economic growth, the Chinese government is tightening its grip abroad. It is effectively trying to buy more time at the expense of regular African people–this is neo-colonialism.

But isn’t this the same as America’s goal of promoting democracy abroad? Perhaps ostensibly, but not functionally. Democracy is based on the concept of self-determination–of people determining their own future and having a government that carries out that vision. Decades of failures and hard-learned lessons in development reinforce the idea that effective democratic governance is the path to peace, stability, and sustainable growth. This is why the United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are based on accountable, inclusive governance and the protection of human rights–i.e. effective democratic governance.

The Chinese model of political economy, on the other hand, places little to no emphasis on the African people.  It will enrich Africa’s autocratic leaders and Chinese businessmen in the short-run, leaving the host countries with rising inequality, continued extreme poverty, human rights violations, and conflict. 

The only thing the Chinese and American visions for governance and development have in common, aside from being based on capitalism, are that they are visions being offered by outside powers. Other than this, they could not be more different.

China states that the training programs are strictly exchanges of opinions rather than an imposition of the China model on African countries. In other words, China invites African political party cadres to China to study the Chinese way of governance on issues they are interested in, but whether they eventually adopt the Chinese way is purely at their own discretion.

The original article suggests that perhaps China is just offering best practices, take ’em or leave ’em, but other recent actions compound the idea this is part of a larger play. Considering increased military assertiveness by China (South China Sea) and Russia (Crimea, Syria), combined with the economic backing of new Sino-Russo-centric development institutions (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDB)), and China’s sharing of “best practices” (best for China, anyhow) look like the “soft power” component of a larger “hard power” play to actively and aggressively promote its interests.  

Contrast this with likely European (Brexit and other internal EU concerns) and potential American retrenchment (who knows what a Trump presidency could mean for our foreign policy), and an even more concerning picture emerges.

Western backed international organizations, though still the dominant players for now, will face increased competition from organizations (AIIB, NDB) that have lower standards for governance and human rights, potentially compromising what is already a lukewarm embrace of the human rights based approach to development (the IMF, still trying to shake the legacy of failed “Washington Consensus” policies, has embraced more pro-poor, context-sensitive, flexible, ex-ante conditionality; the World Bank, on the other hand, is dragging its feet on mainstreaming human rights into its operations).

Global democratization–which has the benefit of near universal popularity among the civil societies of nations–is facing authoritarian headwinds. Overcoming these authoritarian forces requires strong, principled, long-sighted leadership. Lets hope said leadership is somewhere on the horizon.

 


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Of Brexit and Democracy

In terms of British internal affairs, I find it difficult to take a stance on the outcome of the Brexit vote. Britain may be poorer in the short run, but capital and trade will return to normal as markets self-correct, so I do not foresee a prolonged economic slump. I also do not foresee a further unraveling of the E.U., as there are really no other countries like Britain in the E.U. (or more accurately, if other countries do leave, it will be because of structural issues facing the E.U. that predated Brexit). Of course many will disagree, and much more can be said on either of these claims, but I am glossing over them to get to my main point.

There is nothing to be gained by stomping your feet because the referendum’s outcome is not what you may have liked. In fact, in some ways it was refreshing to see a referendum whose outcome was genuinely up-in-the-air. This is how democracy works–if you wish you could impose a result on this referendum, you are missing the point (or maybe I am–counter-point).

Where I believe Brexit can do its worst long-term damage is not to Britain, or the U.K., or even to the E.U. as a whole. Britain and the E.U. at large are modern, democratic, capitalist countries, and as such will prove resilient. It is the world’s developing regions where Brexit will have its greatest impact. These regions need greater contributions in terms of economic aid, democratic capacity building, and conflict prevention / resolution. In terms of conflict prevention / resolution, even before Brexit the E.U. was already punching below its weight, and Britain was one of the few active European armed forces. I cannot see how Brexit will not compromise European contributions on these important fronts: 

Britain’s decision to quit the European Union could send damaging shockwaves through the bedrock Anglo-American “special relationship,” raising questions about London’s willingness and ability to back U.S.-led efforts in global crises ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine.

The loss of the strongest pro-U.S. voice within the 28-nation bloc, as a result of the “Brexit” referendum, threatens to weaken Washington’s influence in European policymaking and embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin to further challenge the West, analysts and former diplomats say.

Phil Gordon, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, expressed concern that Europe will become inwardly focused on Britain’s departure and independence movements on the continent, leaving the United States to shoulder more of the international burden.

Cameron has cooperated closely with Obama in the security sphere. Britain has been a major military player in U.S.-led campaigns against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, an active ally on the ground in Afghanistan and a strong supporter of sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine’s separatist conflict.

While “state-building” may be a fools errand, failing to nurture budding democratic movements, particularly in authoritarian countries, risks losing genuine opportunities for development, the slaughter of innocent people, and the setback of these movements for decades.

The global march towards democratization has naturally slowed down post Cold-War as the “low hanging fruit” of democratization realized their democratic aspirations. But with Brexit (coupled with an increasingly assertive Russia and China), the inevitability of eventual global democratization for the first time comes into question.     

The U.S. has more than carried its share of the load in promoting a democratic international order as Europe built itself back up from the ashes of WWII and further modernized following the Cold War. Now, when domestic considerations are forcing the U.S. to at very least not increase its role in the world, Brexit has compromised the capacity of the only partner that could realistically pick up some of the slack.

Perhaps a pan-European army was never going to be a reality, but Brexit likely made it harder to coordinate the build-ups of individual European armed forces in a synergistic way. 

Britain is a valued member of NATO, but if it is weakened economically by its decision to leave the European Union, its leaders might come under public pressure to pare back military spending — even as the United States is pressuring NATO members to spend more on defense.

The European Union often frustrates American presidents, yet the disintegration of the bloc would be a geopolitical disaster for Washington. Even before Britain’s exit, Germany was Europe’s dominant power, andChancellor Angela Merkel was Europe’s dominant leader.

“Britain leaving the E.U. now poses a challenge for Germany,” said Nicholas Burns, a former top American diplomat who now teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School. “It will need to provide even greater leadership to keep Europe united and moving forward.”

What the Brits decide to do within their own country is their own decision. However, the role Britain plays in international affairs has massive global implications. Hopefully Britain’s new leadership understands this, and acts accordingly. 


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Economic Outlook: Getting the International Aid Fiscal House In Order

humanitarian spedning

Mr. Lykketoft [UN General Assembly President], echoed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said, ‘there can be no peace without development, no development without peace and neither without human rights.’

As the UN marks its 70th anniversary, the Organization itself is “very much at a cross roads, particularly in the area of peace and security” with the architecture developed over the seven decades now struggling to keep pace with today’s and tomorrow’s threats and geopolitical tensions, in a way that is undermining Member State trust.

…making the UN Security Council (UNSC) more representative and more effective, for example, by addressing the use of the veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes. But it also includes agreeing budgetary and institutional reforms to prioritize political solutions and prevention across every aspect of the UN’s approach to sustaining peace.

Humanitarian spending generally goes towards natural disaster relief, aiding people in conflict zones, and helping people displaced by both types of crises. As international powers have proven themselves unable to end conflicts, and the negative affects of climate change have become more acute, humanitarian spending has (unsurprisingly) ballooned in recent years.

Investing in clean energy and environmental resilience (preparedness and early warning systems) can mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters, reducing future environmentally-related humanitarian spending. But natural disasters, while tragic, are partly unavoidable–as various sayings go, mankind cannot “beat” nature.

(Do not confuse the inevitability of natural disasters with climate pessimism–the idea that it is too late to fully prevent the negative aspects of climate change, so why even try? There is nothing inevitable about the current trajectory of global climate change, and there are many actions humans can take to make the global economy more environmentally sustainable).

Thankfully, natural disasters generally do not cause long-term drains on aid budgets. While devastating, the natural disaster passes and the affected area can begin to rebuild. Conflicts, however, can be persistent. Persistent conflicts require sustained humanitarian aiddiverting resources from development aid that doubles as conflict prevention.

[The number of] people in extreme poverty who are vulnerable to crisis–677 million. Efforts to end poverty remain closely related to crisis, with 76% of those in extreme poverty living in countries that are either environmentally vulnerable, politically fragile, or both.

There is something particularly discouraging–no damning–about the fact that man-made, preventable, politically solvable issues should divert such a large amount of resources–80 percent of humanitarian funding–that could otherwise be used to deal with unavoidable humanitarian crises (natural disasters) and investing in sustainable human development / conflict prevention.

There will always be strains on development and humanitarian budgets. Donor countries are asked to give resources while dealing with budgetary constraints at home. All the more reason that, if an issue is both preventable and leads to persistent future costs, it should be addressed at its root.

To this end, the international community needs to invest more into poverty reduction and capacity building for democratic governance, particularly in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) most susceptible to conflict. When conflict prevention fails, there needs to be a military deterrent (more defense spending by the E.U. and Germany specifically) and UN Security Council reform, so that conflicts can be “nipped in the bud” and not deteriorate to the point where they become a persistent source of human suffering and drain on international aid budgets.

The idea of increasing investment in preventative peacebuilding and sustainable development as means of reducing future humanitarian spending has gained steam within the United Nations system–this is good news. But failure to end emerging conflicts before they become persistent conflicts puts this plan at risk, because these persistent conflicts consume the very resources needed to make the aforementioned investments in the first place. 

The U.S. could effectively lead the fight for UNSC reform. As the world’s largest military and a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, on the surface the U.S. would have the most to lose by introducing a way to circumvent a UNSC veto (perhaps through a 2/3 or 3/4 UN General Assembly vote). But while the world has become increasingly democratic, the UNSC has has not. This reality has prevented the U.N. from implementing what it knows are best practices. By relaxing its grip on power through UNSC reform, the U.S. would be able to better promote democracy and human rights abroad.


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Economic Outlook: Guaranteed Income vs. Guaranteed Employment

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose understanding of social justice was unrivaled, knew the importance of gainful employment in achieving his goals. In his day, Dr. King advocated for (among other things) good jobs for African Americans who had been systematically discriminated against for centuries. This was largely something the private sector could provide, if racial discrimination was sufficiently deterred.

Today, it is not an individual race that faces barriers to gainful employment, but a whole socioeconomic lower class. With corporate profits at an all time high, and interest rates at historic lows, the past few years would have been the perfect time for corporations to ramp up hiring. However, due to forces such as globalization and automation, it appears the private sector alone will not provide the number of well-paying jobs American’s need–it simply does not have to in order to maximize profits (at least in the short-run).

A recent Brookings blog advocated for guaranteed income (i.e. welfare) in the face this reality:

The labor market continues to work pretty well as an economic institution, matching labor to capital, for production. But it is no longer working so well as a social institution for distribution. Structural changes in the economy, in particular skills-based technological change, mean that the wages of less-productive workers are dropping. At the same time, the share of national income going to labor rather than capital is dropping.

This decoupling of the economic and social functions of the labor market poses a stark policy challenge. Well-intentioned attempts to improve the social performance of the labor market – through higher minimum wages, profit-sharing schemes, training and education – may not be enough; a series of sticking leaky band-aids over a growing gaping wound.

As Michael Howard, coordinator of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, told Newsweek magazine: “We may find ourselves going into the future with fewer jobs for everybody. So as a society, we need to think about partially decoupling income from employment.

…the answer for American families is an old idea whose time has come—a universal basic income.

While an interesting idea, I think having the government act as an “employer of last resort” is a better way of achieving the goals of “universal basic income”, in a way that would be more politically viable. Aside from the economic benefits of employment, there are numerous social benefits as well, including: less crime, improved self-esteem / mental health, and experience / skill building (making people more desirable to private sector employers).

Government jobs could work in many sectors, at lower average wages (so people look for private sector work first), but with more of a training component to promote eventual private sector employment.

Below are a few potential areas for government jobs–areas that are severely under-invested in, and have strong positive “externalities“:

Infrastructure:

The most often cited example when discussing greater government employment is infrastructure. America’s roads and bridges are largely neglected, costing billions a year in lost economic output and putting people’s safety at risk.

Community Development: 

New evidence suggests that where a person grows up has a significant impact on their chances of being successful later in life. Those who grow up in poorer areas find it much harder to “get out” and live productive lives. This is, of course, a huge hindrance to social mobility.

Community development initiatives include mentoring programs (which can mitigate the effects of bad parenting), and “after-school activity” type programs (which can steer young people towards constructive hobbies which often become the basis of employable skills, and away from destructive behavior). Community centers could also offer affordable / free daycare services for younger children.

Parent(s) determine both “who” raises a child, and “where” (since adults make the choice of where they raise their kids)–winning or losing the “parenting lottery” should not be such a strong determinant of future success. While it is impossible to separate the genetic link between parents and their child (the “nature” side of human development), the “who” and “where” (“nurture” side of human development) can be impacted by investing in community development.

Mental Healthcare:

The ACA ensures mental health parity, but not everyone gets the help they need.  To close this gap, government work could increase the “supply” of mental healthcare workers. What I propose is a Mental Health Corp, featuring a new job type–something akin to nurse practitioners taking on more of a doctor’s duties to reduce healthcare costs–in the mental healthcare field.

One does not need a PhD or MD to provide meaningful help to someone struggling with mental illness. There will always be demand for the best trained mental health professionals from people with the means to afford their services, but for those who cannot, surely some care–even if it is not “the best”–would be greatly beneficial. Such care could help people overcome issues that make them unable to find/hold a job and/or lead to criminal activity. 

Feel free to disagree with me on any of the fields mentioned above. The point I am trying to make is that government employment need not be “digging holes to fill them back up again”.

Robust analyses are needed to compare the costs of our current welfare and criminal justice systems versus the cost of a guaranteed employment program. Not all criminal justice or welfare costs would be eliminated with guaranteed employment (criminal justice reform and a livable minimum wage are also needed) but a significant portion would. It is possible a guaranteed jobs program would not cost much more than what we currently pay to combat the symptoms of unemployment, with much greater benefits. 

While on the topic of welfare, guaranteed employment would remedy one of the major holes in the otherwise sound work-for-welfare requirement of the 1996 welfare reform act. After this reform, those unable to find a job also found themselves without a safety-net, falling into “extreme poverty” (which has more than doubled since the reforms were passed)There is a common saying that a nation should be judged not by how well off its wealthiest are, but by how well off its poorest are–with guaranteed employment for those who want it, America would be doing much better on this count. It is past time to plug this obvious hole in welfare reform.

While no one would get rich from government employment, they would be able to live a comfortable life and provide the resources needed for their children to realize their full potential, fulfilling the promises of equality of opportunity and social mobility that America is built upon.


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Economic Outlook: Why to NOT Raise The Social Security Retirement Age–Labor Force Participation and the “Life-Cycle of Employment”

Original article, courtesy of Politifact:

During the Republican presidential debate in North Charleston, S.C., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took aim at the nation’s economic record under President Barack Obama.

“The millionaires and billionaires are doing great under Obama,” Cruz said. “But we have the lowest percentage of Americans working today of any year since 1977. Median wages have stagnated. And the Obama-Clinton economy has left behind the working men and women of this country.”

Cruz is on to something. One key employment statistic known as the civilian labor force participation rate is at its lowest level since the 1970s. This statistic takes the number of Americans in the labor force — basically, those who are either employed or who are seeking employment and divides it by the total civilian population.

Here’s a chart going back to the mid 1970s.

When the civilian labor force participation rate is low, it’s a concern, because it means there are fewer working Americans to support non-working Americans.

…a notable factor in the decline of the labor-force participation rate is the aging of the Baby Boom generation. As more adults begin moving into retirement age, the percentage of Americans who work is bound to decline.

…there’s another way to read Cruz’s words. He said “the lowest percentage of Americans working” since 1977, which could also refer to a different statistic, the employment-population ratio. This statistic takes the number of people who are employed and divides it by the civilian population age 16 and above.

The difference in this case is that using the employment-population ratio, Cruz’s statement is incorrect. Unlike the labor-force participation rate, the employment-population ratio has actually been improving in recent years, although it’s below its pre-recession highs.

Here’s a chart showing this statistic over the same time frame:

If you exclude the Great Recession, the employment-population ratio was last at its current rate in 1984, not 1977.  So by that measurement, he’s close.

(Note: this blog will not meaningfully address the other major labor market issue raised by Senator Cruz–stagnant wages. Nor will it discuss strategies to alter America’s aging demographic. The primary focus is labor force participation by different age groups, the relationship between older workers staying in the workforce longer and youth unemployment, and how those issues are related to America’s Social Security system.

It is not my intention to spark inter-generational warfare, but rather to point out that a “fix” commonly floated to bring America’s fiscal house in order–raising the Social Security eligibility and retirement ages–could have significant unintended negative consequences).

A declining labor force participation rate is worrisome. Even the more positive statistic (employment-population ratio) is cause for concern.

But as important as what is happening, is why it is happening. Failure to accurately answer this question risks the wrong policy response, which would at best fail to solve the problem and at worst further exacerbate it. The conservative camp would undoubtedly focus on the welfare state and disincentives to work. The liberal camp would probably focus on economic inequality and the resulting lack of opportunity facing many poor, mostly minority youths.

I am not interested in getting into a partisan debate, although my regular readers know which side I generally fall on. What neither side is likely to consider (because it does not fit neatly into either economic narrative) is in what age ranges most of the employment to population ratio change has taken place. To shed some light on this, lets look at a recent analysis done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (The BLS numbers use the 16 and older employment-population ratio definition. In the interest of full disclosure, I work for the BLS, but not in any employment statistics capacity. Furthermore, the views expressed in this blog are my own, and are not the views of the BLS).

Group Participation rate Percentage-point change
1994 2004 2014   1994–2004 2004–14  
Total, 16 years and older 66.6 66.0 62.9 -0.6 -3.1
16 to 24 66.4 61.1 55.0 5.3 -6.1
16 to 19 52.7 43.9 34.0 -8.8 -9.9
20 to 24 77.0 75.0 70.8 -2.0 -4.2
25 to 54 83.4 82.8 80.9 -0.6 -1.9
25 to 34 83.2 82.7 81.2 -0.5 -1.5
35 to 44 84.8 83.6 82.2 -1.2 -1.4
45 to 54 81.7 81.8 79.6 0.1 -2.2
55 and older 30.1 36.2 40.0 6.1 3.8
55 to 64 56.8 62.3 64.1 5.5 1.8
55 to 59 67.7 71.1 71.4 3.4 0.3
60 to 64 44.9 50.9 55.8 6.0 4.9
60 to 61 54.5 59.2 63.4 4.7 4.2
62 to 64 38.7 44.4 50.2 5.7 5.8
65 and older 12.4 14.4 18.6 2.0 4.2
65 to 74 17.2 21.9 26.2 4.7 4.3
65 to 69 21.9 27.7 31.6 5.8 3.9
70 to 74 11.8 15.3 18.9 3.5 3.6
75 to 79 6.6 8.8 11.3 2.2 2.5
75 and older 5.4 6.1 8.0 0.7 1.9
Age of baby boomers 30 to

48

40 to

58

50 to

68

The change in labor force participation seems to have been driven primarily by:

  1. Fewer younger people working
  2. More elderly people working

In fact, the decline of prime working age labor force participation (say 25-55) over the last 20 years has been quite small.

It is true that once you get to the older age brackets (especially 60+), the group represents a smaller percentage of the overall population (see Table 1), so you cannot compare different groups percent changes directly. But even factoring in percentage of the total population, increases in elderly workers have had a significant impact on overall employment. As America’s population continues to get older, it will have an even greater impact:

age distribution over time

Furthermore, according to BLS Employment Projections (2014-2024), these age related labor trends are expected to continue into the future:

The labor force participation rate for youth (ages 16 to 24) is projected to
     decrease from 55.0 percent in 2014 to 49.7 percent in 2024. The youth age
     group is projected to make up 11.3 percent of the civilian labor force in
     2024 as compared with 13.7 percent in 2014. In contrast, the labor force
     participation rate for the 65-and-older age group is projected to increase
     from 18.6 percent in 2014 to 21.7 percent in 2024. This older age group is
     projected to represent 8.2 percent of the civilian labor force in 2024 as
     compared with 5.4 percent in 2014.

One could argue that older and younger people generally do not occupy the same job. Sometimes this is true, sometimes it is not. Furthermore, any given firm could have an older person making a lot of money in a position they intend to fill with more than one entry level worker. This is all anecdotal–without doing more research the exact relationship between older and younger workers and job openings is unknown–but surely there is some relationship (probably one that varies greatly by industry).

Next time a politician talks about raising the Social Security eligibility and retirement ages, consider:

  1. Poorer people (who rely on Social Security the most) are not living longer.
  2. Keeping people working longer means less jobs available to younger people. This also contributes to the exploding student loan debt problem in America (even those who do graduate college have a difficult time getting good paying jobs, at least partially because of competition from older, more qualified workers).

Both of these related issues–youth un(der)employment and student loan debt–create a drag on the economy, as younger people delay starting their “adult lives” (starting families, buying homes, etc.). This drag on the economic growth leads to–you guessed it–less job creation. Based on the BLS numbers, we clearly need to make youth employment a greater priority, as ignoring the problem compromises both current and future economic growth.

When we consider raising the Social Security eligibility age, we must consider unintended consequences. To responsibly increase the eligibility age, the government would have to launch a youth employment program. This could offset most (if not all) of the savings associated with raising the retirement age. Perhaps instead of raising the eligibility age, we should consider making social security a needs-based program, eliminating the cap on taxable income, or both. This may not be “fair” to people who have paid the most into the program (or those who have been more financially conservative throughout their lives), but it would make the Social Security system more financially sustainable, without the unintended negative consequences.

America does not  have to enact policies that exacerbate youth unemployment and/or discomfort poorer elderly people in order to save a few bucks. Our strong financial system and global faith in America’s creditworthiness ensures we can continue to finance important programs (for people of all ages) with long term economic implications. But this global faith in America’s creditworthiness is predicated on the belief that we can correctly identify and address our structural economic problems (and thus continue to grow and repay our debts). To preserve this faith, we must work across the partisan divide to responsibly and sustainably address these problems, not recycle stale partisan arguments that are largely unrelated to the problems at hand.