Lazy Sunday IX: Economics, Part I

I followed a fairly standard political-philosophical trajectory to where I am now. Back in my salad days, I was a big Milton Friedman fanboy (in many ways, I still am).  His works, particularly Capitalism and Freedom, compelling made the case for many things I already believed, and made me love liberty even more.

I skewed heavily into libertarian territory (without every fully becoming a capital-L Libertarian), and came to believe that, in most cases, free markets could (and, in some golden future, would) solve virtually all of humanity’s problems, as history Whiggishly improved more and more with each passing year.  Efficiency would free humanity from drudgery, and we’d all have plenty.

Indeed, that is, in many ways, the story of the modern West:  greater efficiency and economic fluidity has yielded material wealth unparalleled in human existence.  Capitalism works quite well at alleviating material misery.

But there’s the rub:  as I’ve grown older, gradually amassing a nest egg and hustling constantly, I’ve come to understand that, as nice as material abundance is, it is a false god (as is the neoliberals’ lust for ever-greater efficiency).  Despite our great wealth and our cheap, shiny, plastic baubles from China, America’s are culturally, morally, and philosophically miserable.

So, for the next two Sundays I’ll be featuring posts on economics, a topic I believe should be regarded as one of the humanities, rather than a social science.  I still believe capitalism is the best possible economic system ever devised, and does a great deal to secure liberty for individuals and nations (as Milton Friedman wrote, economic freedom is a necessary precursor to political freedom).  That said, I’ve adopted Tucker Carlson’s formulation that capitalism should work for us, not the other way around.

To that end, here are this week’s pieces on economics:

  • 4.8% Economic Growth?!” – this very short post relaunched this blog.  The TPP 3.0 Era, as I call it, kicked off with my move to WordPress.  It trumpets the incredible growth of the Trump Administration and its economic policies. After years of sluggish “recovery” under President Obama, the Trump Renaissance breathed fresh life into our moribund economy.
  • Q&A Wednesday – Tax Cuts, Trade Wars, Etc.” – I adapted this post from a response I wrote to some Facebook comments from two of my most loyal readers.  It details my evolving views on tariffs—essentially, that instead of opposing nearly completely, I now see their utility.Towards the end of this essay, I address an idea I’ve been kicking around:  that it’s better to subsidize workers through protective tariffs (thereby giving them work, and a sense of purpose) than simply to hand out money or administer costly welfare programs.

    I developed that idea more fully in the next essay on this list.  It goes to the idea that people—and, I would argue, specifically men—derive a great deal of their sense of self from their work.  This understanding is closer to the term vocation than it is merely to “work,” the distinction being that vocation is work that is both productive and fulfilling—it’s work in a higher sense, beyond merely providing for one’s basic needs.

  • The Human Toll of Globalization” – this post was inspired by a lengthy Breitbart piece about the costs of globalization, and is of a piece with the previous essay.  Therein I explored the idea, mentioned directly above, that work is ennobling, and its benefits go beyond a paycheck.  There is a quiet, affirmative satisfaction to doing something and doing it well.  Why else would I blog daily with zero revenue?
  • Global Poverty in Decline” – lest you think I’ve jettisoned the old Friedmanian views completely, this short post—based on a Rasmussen Number of the Day—deals with the decline in global poverty in the last few decades.  That decline is, truly, astonishing.  A good chunk of it came with economic liberalization in China, which has come, in part, at the expense of the United States, but it also reflects the benefits of economic liberty across the globe, particularly in the former Soviet bloc countries.For all the potential moral hazards of excessive material wealth, there’s no denying the inherent morality of a system that prevents starvation, malnutrition, and homelessness, all with only minimal government coercion and interference.  That’s pretty remarkable, and one reason we should be careful to protect capitalism, even as we seek to rein in its more destructive tendencies.

That’s it for this XXL (that’s “Extra-Extra-Large”) edition of Lazy Sunday.  Enjoy!

–TPP

Other Lazy Sunday Installments:

End the Income Tax

Today is tax day.  Despite President Trump’s signature tax reform, I ended up owing money to the feds for the first time in my adult life (although I’ll be getting a bit back from the State of South Carolina).

The income tax used to be unconstitutional in our Republic.  Indeed, the primary way that federal government gained revenue was from tariffs on imported goods and excise taxes on certain products, like whiskey.  Alexander Hamilton advocated for high protective tariffs to protect young domestic industries from British manufacturers, who were “dumping” cheap British goods into the infant nation (a practice China has taken up today).  Only during times of war, such as the American Civil War, did Americans have to endure a tax on incomes.

Like most odious, liberty-killing measures, the income tax was a Progressive Era project, ratified in the 16th Amendment (followed shortly thereafter by the 17th Amendment, which made US Senators directed elected, and the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol).  Progressive reformers assured Americans that only a very small proportion of Americans would ever pay the income tax, which was graduated from the beginning.

That claim was true… for the first year.  Immediately, Congress began ratcheting up tax rates and requiring more Americans to pay it.  Governments are hard-pressed not to exploit a newfangled method of raising revenue.

The income tax is not all bad:  it’s a more stable source of revenue that tariffs, which depend upon foreign imports.  No imports, no taxation.  Advocates for the graduated income tax, like Tennessee Congressman and future Secretary of State Cordell Hull, argued that, in the event of a major war in Europe (which broke out a year after the 16th Amendment was ratified), international trade would fall, bringing collected duties down with it.  That was a prescient observation, and a strong argument in favor of some kind of domestic tax.

That said, the income tax is incredibly invasive.  Every year, I lament that the federal government has to collect so much information about me:  where I worked during the fiscal year, how I saved my money, etc.

According to Scott Rasmussen, 52% of Americans favor repealing the 16th Amendment.  Count me among them.  The income tax gives the government far too much influence over our lives, and the federal tax code is so byzantine and full of carve-outs and exemptions, it’s become the purview of the well-connected.  It’s become a corporatist monstrosity.

What would replace the income tax?  Given that it’s likely never to be repealed—governments don’t typically diminish their power (or access to other people’s money)—the question is largely academic.  Still, it’s worth considering.

While I think tariffs can serve a useful purpose (see also: bringing China to heel), and that there’s an argument for some mild protectionism, high protective tariffs like Republicans championed after the Civil War would be ruinous to trade.  The deadweight loss (destroyed economic activity) associated with tariffs—especially from the inevitable retaliatory tariffs other nations would pass in response—would do more harm than good, and could result in a Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 situation (i.e., the Great Depression).

The only realistic alternative that I see currently (from my admittedly myopic position) is a national sales tax.  There are some serious drawbacks to this approach, to be sure, but it would be the cleanest, most efficient way to generate revenue.

A national sales tax would encourage saving and work, both of which are currently disincentivized under our current tax regime.  Instead, purchases would be disincentivized, which would hurt sales, but encourage people to hold onto more of their money.  Further, it would not require the government to keep elaborate tabs on every worker; the Internal Revenue Service could be greatly reduced, or even eliminated.

Of course, any tax is a necessary evil, and a national sales tax would make it more difficult for high sales tax States to raise revenue (as it would limit those States’ ability to increase their taxes if necessary).  It would also slow purchasing, and necessarily raise prices (by definition, especially if you’re tacking 15-25% on top of a good).  There’s also the question of whether a sales tax should just apply to consumer goods, or if it should be an uber-expensive value-added tax, with each economic transaction along the chain of production getting taxed.

Those are sticky questions for wonkier types than I to sort out.  But wouldn’t it be nice to build an economy on the production of real value—of stuff—rather than one built on ever-expanding sales, purchasing on credit, and debt financing?

Regardless, the federal income tax is a major imposition, an invasive intruder that enters our lives every April, borrowing from us (without interest!) throughout the year, and intimidating us with the looming threat of disruptive audits.  It seems everyone would be happier—even, in a way, the feds!—if it were eliminated.

The Human Toll of Globalization

Last week’s posts shared a similar theme:  the costs of unbridled free trade; the benefits of cutting corporate and income taxes to unleash economic growth; and the human side to economics that academics tend to miss.

The first and third topics referenced above came into sharp relief as I read an excellent piece by Chadwick Moore, “Left for Dead in Danville: How Globalism is Killing Working Class America.”  It’s a long-form piece of journalism for Breitbart, but it is well worth the read.  I encourage all of my readers to set aside twenty minutes to read it and its terrifying account of globalization gone wrong.

My post today simply seeks to offer up a summary of Moore’s findings, presenting them in an easily-digestible form for those who don’t have the time or inclination to read his full-length piece.

The conceit of the piece is simple:  Moore visited Danville, Virginia, a former textile mill town located on the Dan River, and very close to North Carolina.  The town was once—and “once” doesn’t mean “a hundred years ago,” but about twenty years ago—a thriving town that supported a solid middle-class through its robust textile industry.  Civic pride was abundant, and the Dan River Mill supported a number of youth and community activities and functions that are familiar to anyone who has grown up in a small town.

Then came NAFTA in 1994, followed by China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2000.  After years of struggling to compete with foreign competition, Dan River Mills shut down in 2006 (it had been open since 1882).

As the town’s economy declined and unemployment skyrocketed, social problems grew.  Drug use increased dramatically, as did crime, and formerly-safe, middle-class neighborhoods devolved into dangerous slums.  More than a quarter of the town’s population is on food stamps.

Race relations also grew worse.  The town had enjoyed peaceful, working relationships between black and white citizens, who worked together happily in the mills and other businesses.  Now, the KKK plans rallies, preying off the desperation of the unemployed (the town is roughly half white, half black).

Moore gives a good bit of space to quoting Michael Stumo, the CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America.  Stumo elegantly explains the problem in Danville—as with many other small towns in Middle America—tracing it to China and the World Trade Organization.  Some choice bits to chew on:

“‘When China joined the WTO in 2000 with 1.3 billion people underemployed, it began pulling them out of the rice paddies, the farms, and rural areas, and putting them to work. The Chinese under-consume. They produce more than they consume, [in] a country that’s four and a half times as big as ours and relying on the American consumer to fund their path to wealth and doing so with a state-directed economy, which is different than communist, it’s a strategic mix of state capitalism with a little bit of private sector in it. We always thought communism would fail, but China found central planning 2.0 and is pretty good at it,’ he says….

‘We have free trade within the 50 states,’ Stumo says. ‘By impoverishing our middle class with this offshoring driven by free trade policy, you’re killing the U.S. consumer market, which drives growth, because they have no money. Five or ten percent cheaper prices is overwhelmed in this stage by lack of production and stagnant wages,’ he says. ‘The U.S. middle class cannot afford to fund the rise of other countries anymore.

‘Industry doesn’t stand still; industry is always incubating—you give up the jobs, the wealth creation, the supply chain clusters in communities, and that affects the service sector around them,’ Stumo says. ‘You pull those plants out, and a lot of people are out of work, and then the whole general wage level drops because burger-flipping isn’t an upward pressure on wages, but production is.'”

A degree of globalization, in an age of mass transit and mass communications, inevitable.  And open trade with lower tariffs generally is beneficial.  But naïvely-open trade with dishonest trading partners with slave-level wages primarily benefits the dishonest party.  Yes, there are some winners in the United States—I certainly enjoy a higher quality of life because of cheap electronics from abroad, for example—but as I wrote last week, isn’t it worth paying a little more for your television or washing machine, if it means an American keeps his job.

My thinking on this is simple:  the actual, physical and mental of work, in and of itself, important.  Yes, we could pay everyone a guaranteed basic income, or help people through more assistance programs (ignore the astronomical costs of those programs for the moment), but even if they worked beautifully in the material sense, they will, in the long-run, lead to a deterioration of real skills and, more important, a spiritual vitality.

I strongly believe that the three keys to happiness are faith, family, and work, in that order.  Work is ennobling, even if it is unpleasant at times.  As such, if the government is going to do something, would it not be wiser to offer assistance that requires work?

Tariffs accomplish this goal to some extent, and are entirely constitutional (indeed, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, argued for them as Secretary of Treasury).  They also produce revenue for the federal government, and could be used to offset further reductions in corporate and income tax rates.

Ultimately, the social and civic costs of unbridled, unfocused free trade seem too steep.  Read Moore’s observations about the flood of drugs and despair into this once-civic-minded, prosperous town, and understand that the 10% discount you enjoy on your consumer goods is seldom worth the human toll.

To clarify once again, I’m not arguing we return to the massively high tariffs of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  That would be economically disastrous in other ways, and would further enhance our federal government’s penchant for corporatist back-scratching and favoritism.  But some judicious, targeted tariffs, especially against nations like China, are wise.  Why should we be subsidizing China’s growth at the expense of our own?

One final thought:  as I wrote Friday, a married man used to be able to raise his kids on a gas station pump-boy’s salary.  Sure, life was lean, and there weren’t a ton of crazy gadgets to play with or luxuries to enjoy, but the kids grew up well enough and the wife could stay home to raise them.  Are we really that much better off now, when both husband and wife slave for 40+ hours a week (and usually longer), outsource their parenting responsibilities to daycare and public schools, and can’t get out from under student loan, home, car, and consumer debt?

There are a host of factors driving the modern scenario of today versus the “blue-collar father” of yesteryear, but surely one economic solution is to stop burrowing out our families and towns in favor of frosty, urban cosmopolitanism and aloof globalism.  I care about the people of China, and I’m glad to see they’re no longer trapped in rice paddies and collectivized farms, but—like our great President Trump—I care about my country and fellow countrymen first.  So should the United States government—it’s job is, literally, to put Americans first.

Q&A Wednesday – Tax Cuts, Trade Wars, Etc.

Two of my most loyal readers, Megan and Frederick (I highly recommend the latter’s corporate history blog, CorporateHistory.International), both chimed in via Facebook about Monday’s post on tax cuts.  Frederick pointed out a potential downside to corporate tax cuts—what’s to stop large multinationals from investing that money in physical plants and employees overseas, notably in China?  Megan asked me to elaborate further on tariffs in relation to that very question.

Being a conservative, I like to conserve things—traditions, morals, civil society, working institutions, etc.—but most especially effort.  I’m a strong believer in the dictum, “Work smarter, not harder” (although you need a healthy dose of the latter, too).  As such, I’m adapting my Facebook response to them here.

I think the question of tariffs and trade wars is hugely interesting, and needn’t be bogged down in tedious charts and numbers.  What I do believe is that President Trump has ripped the façade from the bipartisan push for globalism, and particularly demonstrated the real, human cost of unbridled free trade.

I used to be 99% a free trader, with 1% reserved for mild tariffs on national security-related goods, like steel.

Now I’m probably more 85% free trade, 15% tariffs. A tariff is a tax, yes, and it’s borne not just by foreign nations exporting goods to the US, but also by American consumers, who have to pay more for goods that are protected (and, thus, more expensive and potentially of a lesser quality than they would be in a competitive, free market).  That disclaimer aside, it seems like paying a few more bucks for your washing machine is a good way to keep Americans employed and earning a decent wage.

If you take that reasoning too far you fall into the dilemma of minimum wage increases, which increase unemployment (especially for unskilled, young, and minority workers) and raise costs, so that any increased wages enjoyed by the beneficiaries are eaten away by the increased costs of consumer goods—all served up with a side of higher unemployment.

That said, judicious tariffs—I’m not arguing for the high, blanket tariffs of the late nineteenth century, which wouldn’t work well in our modern, interconnected economy—especially related to key industries like steel, could keep a lot of Americans working, and would allow blue-collar workers to earn a wage that wouldn’t require years of expensive schooling.

Also, I think targeted tariffs against unequal trading partners—I’m thinking primarily of China—would level the playing field, and prevent some of the outsourcing and capital flight that might occur with a corporate tax cut (or, more likely, increase). It’s unreasonable to expect American workers—with all their labor protections, etc.—to compete with near-slave wage Chinese workers. China’s currency manipulation to make its exports artificially cheaper, as well its rampant intellectual property theft, needs to be combated, and if it means getting our cheap plastic Happy Meal toys from Vietnam (or the USA!) instead of China, so be it.

The current “trade war” with China sees Americans in a much better position than the Chinese. China needs those exports, but the USA can stand to experience some minor drag to its GDP growth given the massive growth we’re seeing with the tax cuts (not just the corporate tax cut, but also the 20% deduction for small business pass-through earnings, which is YUGE for small business growth—a key driver of employment in our country). I see it as a trade-off—pay a little more for some consumer goods, but create imbalance in the Chinese economy and force them to play ball on par with the Western world and Japan.

My only real concern with this approach is there is no limiting principle (although that’s true for any type of tax, and we have to have some of them), which makes me wary as a limited-government Jeffersonian, but the Hamiltonian commercialist in me sees this moment in history as one in which we can uniquely leverage our economic clout to improve our own economy and our position internationally, and we can afford to go through a trade war longer than China (or Mexico, or Europe).

Everyone loses if a trade war lasts too long, but I think the Chinese will blink first. American workers will be the ones to benefit.

One additional thought, which will require more elegant development in a future post:  even with the inefficiencies and deadweight loss that would occur from overly-high tariffs, wouldn’t protecting domestic jobs be a more effective and fulfilling way to provide a living for blue-collar workers than the current welfare system?  Instead of a massive, government-run bureaucracy administering a complex and redundant system of bennies, society could bear the cost through paying a bit more for consumer goods.  Such a system would create more semi-skilled positions in some industries, and I’d rather we subsidize people through work than to subsidize them not to work.  Again, that’s a very rough sketch, but some food for thought.

Regardless, tariffs are not an unalloyed evil, nor is free trade an unalloyed good.  There’s room for both.  Economics suggests that the balance should favor the latter more heavily than the former, but we can temper the massive social disruption that unbridled globalization unleashes.