Normative Narratives


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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).

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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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Economic Outlook: Magic Asterisks v. Cross-Country Analysis

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The Great Debate Continues–The Austerity v. Stimulus Referendum of 2014:

It has been over 6 years since the beginning of “The Great Recession”. As the stimulus vs. austerity debate rages on, it is worthwhile to evaluate the efficacy of these competing economic ideologies, as they are essentially up for referendum in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections.

It is almost impossible to find truly neutral economic analysis; there are experts and spin-doctors across the political spectrum, people whose jobs are to cherry-pick facts and provide anecdotes to vindicate their positions. I try my best to be objective, but I am sure that my progressive biases are evident to my readers.

One thing that cannot be faked, at least in modern democracies, is macroeconomic history (thanks to advances in data collection, government budgetary transparency / accountability and communications technologies). So what have the past 6 years taught us?

On one hand, the doctrine of “expansionary austerity” relies on “magic asterisks“–the math doesn’t add up. This is not just a liberal claim, it is backed up by the [absence of] economic growth in countries and states that have tried / been force-fed the bitter pill of “expansionary austerity”.

On the other hand, robust, cross-country analyses of post-Great Recession economic policies, carried out by the IMF, have [slowly] acknowledged the damage caused by austerity / benefits of stimulus spending (and this is the IMF here, not exactly a pro-poor institution).

The Case For Austerity–Magic asterisks:

At the state level, Republican governors — and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, in particular — have been going all in on tax cuts despite troubled budgets, with confident assertions that growth will solve all problems. It’s not happening, and in Kansas a rebellion by moderates may deliver the state to Democrats. But the true believers show no sign of wavering.

the nature of the budget debate means that Republican leaders need to believe in the ways of magic. For years people like Mr. Ryan have posed as champions of fiscal discipline even while advocating huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. They have also called for savage cuts in aid to the poor, but these have never been big enough to offset the revenue loss. So how can they make things add up?

Well, for years they have relied on magic asterisks — claims that they will make up for lost revenue by closing loopholes and slashing spending, details to follow. But this dodge has been losing effectiveness as the years go by and the specifics keep not coming…

The Case For Stimulus–IMF Cross Country Analysis:

The International Monetary Fund, showing heightened concern over a slowing world economy, said on Tuesday that cash-rich countries like Germany needed to step up large public investments to help keep the flagging global recovery on track.

Its estimate for United States growth in 2015, 3.1 percent, outpaces all major industrialized countries and exceeds as well a number of emerging markets, which in theory are supposed to grow at a substantially more rapid clip.

The fund unveiled this week a paper arguing that large-scale infrastructure investments, if properly undertaken, could bring relatively quick growth benefits — a message that seemed to be directed at deficit-obsessed eurozone governments, including Germany.

“Infrastructure investment, even if debt-financed, may well be justified,” Olivier Blanchard, the fund’s senior economist, said at the news conference on Tuesday.

Mr. Blanchard pointed out that with interest rates at modern-day lows — Germany can borrow money for 10 years at below 1 percent — taking on extra debt to stimulate the economy need not be seen as profligacy.

He offered up a brief economic primer to underscore his point. “It is an irony of macroeconomics,” he said with a small smile, “that for countries with too much debt, sometimes the solution is to create more debt.”

Mr. Blanchard, who oversees economic research at the I.M.F., was behind the fund’s public recognition two years ago that heavy-handed austerity policies in Europe had a larger-than-expected impact on economic growth.

Now, it seems, the global watchdog seems to be going one step further by urging eurozone officials to relax their rigid austerity measures.

What Does “American Exceptionalism” Mean to You?:

In America, those who oppose stimulus spending–fiscal conservatives–also tend to believe in “American Exceptionalism”. What happens in other countries is not relevant to America; “we’re special”, they claim.

These same opponents of stimulus spending may also argue (with negative connotation) that “the U.S. is turning into Europe”. However,  as you can see from the graphs at the top of the post, the U.S. has far lower spending and unemployment rates than other wealthy economies.

The great irony, which I am sure is lost on those who worry about the “eurofication” of America, is that it was in large part our ability to pursue policies that they would consider “European” (the ARRA, QE), that enabled the U.S. to lead the global economic recovery.

I too believe in “American Exceptionalism”. To me, however, this exceptionalism is more about the extra-territorial obligations that come with being the world’s strongest economy, military, and reserve currency, than an heir of hubris which precludes considering the experiences of other countries when drafting policy. But that’s just my opinion.

Debt Sustainability, MMT, and Context Sensitive Macroeconomics:

The issue of debt sustainability, however, is far less subjective. America’s relatively high growth rates, and historically low interest rates (thanks to central bank independence and a sterling history of honoring our debts), make stimulus spending both feasible and fiscally responsible.

I am not fully sold on the merits of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), it seems too radical to me. I am, however, a proponent of context sensitive macroeconomics; expansionary fiscal policy (stimulus spending) is appropriate now, but may not always be. However, the temporal nature of democratic politics makes offering future deficit reductions in exchange for stimulus spending, impracticable (which is unfortunate, as this approach is just what the doctor ordered). 

Government spending need not take the form of “paying people to dig holes and then refill them”, a picture anti-government proponents love to paint. There are glaring infrastructure weaknesses that pose serious problems from both public safety and economic perspectives.

Furthermore, in the current context, government spending would not “crowd out” private investment. In fact, if properly enacted, stimulus spending should increase private spending. Governments around the world are increasingly embracing public private partnerships (PPP)–leveraging public money to raise private funds when it serves both sectors interests (such as infrastructure spending, job training, etc).

Corporate cash hording, despite very low interest rates, suggests that private companies are able and would be willing to spend more if either a) the government contributes funding (PPP), or b) aggregate demand increased (which in the short run can be catalyzed either by increasing government spending, or by putting more money in the hands of those with the highest marginal propensity to consume–poorer people).

Of course, there are limits to what stimulus spending can achieve. The “multiplier” effect of a stimulus program depends on the necessity, targetability, efficiency, and accountability of its components. Beyond government spending, major policy changes, such as tax reform and minimum wage increases, are also desperately needed.

Liberal economic policies in the U.S. cannot fix the world’s problems, but they can increase American growth, set our economy up for higher future growth rates, and rekindle “The American Dream”. The U.S can lead both by action and example, serving as a model for other countries to emulate as best they can.


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Economic Outlook: Developing or Developed, National Investment Into “Quality” Jobs Yields Strong Returns

Original article:

Developing countries that invested in quality jobs from the early 2000s grew nearly one percentage point faster every year since 2007 and were better able to weather the economic crisis than comparable economies, according to a new report by the United Nations labour agency.

The annual report of the International Labour Organization (ILO), The World of Work 2014, focuses this year on the relationship between good jobs and national development through analysis of 140 developing and emerging nations.

Decent work opportunities for women and men help trigger development and reduce poverty,” Guy Ryder, Director-General of the ILO,” said in a news release on the launch of the report, subtitled Developing with Jobs.

“Social protection, respect for core labour standards and policies that promote formal employment are also crucial for creating quality jobs that raise living standards, increase domestic consumption and drive overall growth,” he added.

“In view of the evidence, it is essential to make decent work a central goal in the post-2015 development agenda,” stressed Raymond Torres, Director of the ILO Research Department.

Quality jobs are an important tool for escaping poverty traps. In a recent post, I said that economics is always context sensitive; this does not mean, however, that certain things–such as quality jobs–are not important in all contexts. Whether in a rich or poor country, societies poorest are unable to escape poverty traps because they do not save–they either spend their entire income on survival or short-term luxuries to distract them from life’s problems. While “extreme poverty” (living on less than $1.25 /day, adjusted for purchasing power parity) is confined to the world’s least developed countries (LDCs), relative poverty exists everywhere. While the exact income level needed to escape a poverty trap (the inflection point on the graph above) is context sensitive, the general relationship holds in all contexts.

Underpinning the universality of relative poverty is the inverse relationship between marginal propensity to consume (MPC) and income; the lower ones income, the greater percentage of it they will consume. The flip side of this is low savings–the higher one’s MPC (ranging from 0-1), the lower one’s MPS (MPS + MPC = 1). This inability to save perpetuates a vicious cycle of low productivity, low wages, and low savings resulting in inadequate investment in “human capital” (education, healthcare, etc), which is what causes the low level of productivity in the first place–a poverty trap. While different income groups in different countries have different levels of MPC/S, this general relationship between income, consumption, savings, investment and poverty holds in all contexts.

The U.N. report cited at the beginning of this post focuses on quality job creation in developing countries; I would like to shift the focus to America’s political economy. No politician, particularly in a democracy, would ever say they are opposed to creating quality jobs. Therefore, we must assess the different ideological / policy approaches to quality job creation, in order to determine which approach is most likely to succeed:

Liberals:

Invest in human capital, particularly needs-based investment (which, due to low levels of income / savings, these people cannot afford themselves) to boost worker productivity, physical capital (infrastructure projects),  and growth markets (such as renewable energy) to boost economic output and create jobs in a depressed economy (counter-cyclical fiscal policy).

Raise the minimum wage and support collective bargaining (unionization) to increase take home pay for “blue collar” workers.

Conservatives:

Cut spending to reign in the deficit, restoring confidence in the economy so “job creators” (those who hold financial capital) will reinvest into the economy. Perpetuate a “race to the bottom” by discouraging collective bargaining and subsidizing private job creation by providing tax breaks / subsidies to private companies .

Reduce taxes and regulations as much as possible (starve the “beast”). Rely on private actors, market forces, and trickle-down economics to result in the optimal allocation of resources.

Conservatives will point to a low unemployment rate (currently 6.3%) to prove that additional stimulus spending is not needed. Liberals will counter with evidence of wage stagnation and “working poor” to argue that greater labor market intervention is needed. The question then becomes, what is a quality job? Is it simply having a job, or is a minimum salary (perhaps that inflection point) needed? Further clouding the issue is the apparent disconnect between productivity and wages, implying that simply training low wage workers–the typical remedy for escaping “poverty traps”–may be insufficient to create “quality jobs” (and hence the growing minimum wage movement).

History has resoundingly and repeatedly debunked the concept of “trickle down economics” yet it keeps coming up in mainstream political economy discussions–something Paul Krugman would call a “Zombie Idea”. The reason this “zombie idea” persists is relatively straightforward–vested interests with large levels of wealth perpetuate this view through the mainstream media. They state any additional costs (taxes, regulations, wage increases) will cause massive job loss despite record high corporate profits (after taxes) and stock values , and (relatedly) historically low corporate income tax rates.

I leave my readers with this question; which plan to create quality jobs sounds more likely to work to you? Take that answer to the voting booth with you during the 2014 midterm elections, because quality jobs are the key to sustainable human development, economic growth, and social cohesion.

 


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Much Ado About a “Do Nothing Congress”

A recent NYT article cast a gloomy picture for those hoping for a Democratic super-majority after the 2014 Midterm Elections.

History says President Obama should brace for another round of midterm election losses next year — and be grateful for the opportunity.

Unlike presidents who never got the same chance, Mr. Obama is in line to become only the fifth president since Harry S. Truman to serve long enough for a second midterm election, and the possibility that his party might hold or gain ground in Congress in his sixth year in office. But the unhappy record of his two-term predecessors — none of whom gained control of either legislative chamber — offers scant comfort about his prospects.

However, there is reason to believe the Democrats may retake the House. Two forces in particular are working in their favor.

1) The Democratic Party is more popular than the G.O.P (Gallup Poll):

The two parties’ favorability ratings are at the lower end of the range Gallup has measured for each, although the GOP has the lower absolute rating. The Democratic Party’s current favorability rating of 42% is similar to what it was during most of 2010 — a year in which the Democrats lost 63 House seats and majority control in that chamber.

Moderates More Likely to Prefer Democratic Party Over Republican Party

While the two parties rely on their ideological soul mates for support — Republicans depend on conservatives, while Democrats lean on liberals — both parties also need at least some support from the political center to win elections. Self-described moderates are more likely to have a favorable image of the Democratic Party (47%) than of the Republican Party (27%), which may prove problematic for the GOP next year in the congressional elections. It is worth noting, however, that moderates typically lean more Democratic than Republican.

Parties' Favorability, by Self-Reported Ideology, December 2013

The Republican Party can hardly claim to have locked up its support among conservatives, who are as likely to have a favorable (47%) as an unfavorable (46%) image of the GOP. Liberals, by contrast, are more unified in their support for the Democratic Party, with 71% viewing the party favorably.

2) People don’t like a “Do-Nothing” Congress:

Trend: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?

And the 113th Congress is a “Do-Nothing” Congress.

This Friday, the 113th Congress will end its 2013 session with a less-than-distinguished title: one of the least productive ever.

Halfway through its term, Congress has passed 56 laws. By comparison, 10 years ago, the 108thCongress passed 504 laws between 2003 and 2004. A decade before, the 103rd passed 473 laws, according to GovTrack, a site that monitors legislation.

The current Congress’s predecessor, the 112th — thought to be the least productive ever — managed to pass 284. The 113th Congress is on track to underperform even that cohort.

The original “Do-Nothing” Congress, the 80th U.S. Congress, enjoyed a Republican super-majority. By the time the 81st Congress was sworn in, Democrats had taken over the majority in both the House and the Senate.

Now, the fact that Congress is currently split–Democrats have the majority in the Senate, while the G.O.P controls the house–paves the way for much more finger-pointing than in the 81st congressional election. The experts believe only 20 something seats are truly “up for grabs”, and the Democrats need to win almost all of them (17) to take a majority in the House. However, given the relative unpopularity of the G.O.P (both among conservatives and moderates), it would appear that Democrats primed to take many of the undecided seats.

Lots of time still remains before the 2014 midterm elections, and the political landscape can change drastically between now and then. If there is one things you can predict in democratic elections, it is unpredictability.

“I don’t think there are any formulas” for midterm election results, said Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter. “We underplay the fact that elections are elections with individual candidates.”