How We Stopped Investing in the Future: A Florida Case Study

In June 2009, ten Florida Congressmen sent a letter to the Department of Transportation, requesting over $2 billion from the federal government. They wanted to build a high-speed rail line, shuttling passengers from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami in only two hours. The money was supposed to come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion “stimulus” bill that newly-elected President Barack Obama signed in February of that year.

Of the ten Florida Congressmen, three were Republicans, and all three had voted against the stimulus: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Adam Putnam.

This kind of about-face wasn’t unusual. Many Republicans were begging for a piece of the stimulus after they had tried to kill it in Congress. Even party leaders like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor got in on the action.

John Boehner defended this contradiction by saying that the stimulus would fund “shovel-ready projects that will create much-needed jobs.” Only a few months earlier, he had been saying the exact opposite — and relentlessly trashing anyone who dared to disagree with him.

The Tampa-Orlando rail line really did fit Boehner’s definition. It was shovel-ready because almost all the land and permits were already lined up, and according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, it would create 27,000 jobs.

Moreover, it was good fiscal policy. According to two separate reports, the project would produce an annual surplus of $31 million to $45 million by 2026 — and that didn’t include the much more profitable connection to Miami that was likely to follow.

And it was good environmental policy. High-speed rail emits far less greenhouse gas than cars, especially in densely populated regions like central and southeastern Florida, which is why overflowing cities in China, Europe, and Japan have surged so far ahead of us in this vehicle of the future. It saves time, money, and pollution. Unsurprisingly, it’s very popular.

Fifty years ago, this would have been a no-brainer. In the 1950s and the 1960s, politicians were dedicated to investing in new technology and staying one step ahead of the Soviet Union. It’s no coincidence that economic growth was faster and more widespread in those days.

Back then, the federal government spent 2.6 percent of the nation’s income on nonmilitary investment. In the last twenty years, it has averaged 1.8 percent per year. That difference of 0.8 percent may not seem like a lot, but it adds up to trillions and trillions of dollars that could have gone into research and development, education, and new infrastructure — and, if previous investments are any indication, would have yielded benefits many times higher than the costs.

As economist Eugene Steuerle put it, “We have a budget for a declining nation.”

On January 28, 2010, the White House granted Florida’s request. By December, the Department of Transportation had allocated $2.4 billion against a cost of $2.65 billion, and they promised to cover any cost overruns. Had Florida accepted the money, its workers would be laying rail for the Sunshine State bullet train at this very moment.

Instead, Governor Rick Scott rejected the deal, citing cost concerns that didn’t make much sense since the feds were on the hook for any losses.

Thus did the dreams of high-speed rail die in Florida. Thus do many dreams of the future die in the modern political arena.

In Tampa, there’s a street called Bayshore Boulevard. It’s the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. It’s a beautiful walk, with a balustrade that overlooks the water below. It was built in the 1930s by the Public Works Administration, part of the federal government’s response to the Great Depression. It’s just one of many breathtaking feats of construction that dot this great land of ours, each a reminder that, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during the high-speed rail fiasco, “We still know how to do big things in this country.”

I’d like to think that’s true. I’d like to think we still care about the future. I’d like to think we can build a better tomorrow. I only wish Governor Scott and his fellow ideologues felt the same way.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Romney’s Energy Plans Don’t Bode Well for the Future

Mitt Romney has officially given up on the future. At least, that’s the way it looks from the energy plan he released last month.

The future is in peril for a number of reasons. Climate change is slowly eroding the environmental stability we’ve enjoyed for centuries. The wide gap between what we import and what we export is driving manufacturing jobs overseas. And our dependence on foreign oil embroils our national security in the explosive Middle East.

With his new energy plan, Romney surrendered on all three fronts.

When Romney proposed expanding oil drilling to previously restricted areas, he was probably listening to people like Fox News commentator Peter Morici, who has said, “Oil imports could be cut by two-thirds by boosting U.S. oil production to 10 million barrels a day.”

Only one problem: It’s impossible.

According to the Energy Information Agency, even if we open all those lands to exploration, our current production of 6 million barrels per day will never grow to more than 7.5 million, let alone 10. There just isn’t enough oil under the ground — and even if there were, it wouldn’t be available for another decade.

So we will always import oil — unless we replace it with something else.

By “something else,” of course I’m referring to renewable energy. The Romney plan, however, doesn’t propose a single policy to encourage the development and export of renewable energy technologies. Instead, it advocates even less oversight of an industry that experienced the worst environmental disaster in American history only two years ago.

Romney’s preference for oil over solar and wind power is particularly striking in light of his party’s alarmism over inflation (which never seems to materialize when they say it will). After all, oil prices have been rising for three decades, while manufacturing prices have been falling.

Since the 1990s, installation costs for wind power have fallen by 90 percent. In last year alone, solar panel prices fell 50 percent. Compare that to gas prices, which…well, you know.

Someone needs to tell Mitt Romney: You can’t be an inflation hawk and an oil bull at the same time. If you commit the nation to more oil, you’re committing to rising prices.

For a candidate so enthralled with innovation and entrepreneurship, it’s especially astonishing to see Romney’s indifference to the renewable energy market. If any industry could close the trade deficit with China, it’s solar and wind power, where China has much less advantage than in other manufactured products because labor only accounts for 4 percent of the total cost. “Imported oil and subsidized imports from China account for nearly the entire trade gap,” according to Morici.

So why not kill two birds with one stone?

Once upon a time, the federal government would have supported a blossoming industry like renewable technologies. Back when it was the fastest-growing economy in the world, the United States had the world’s highest industrial tariffs, protecting its young factories until they were strong enough to compete with foreign firms.

No longer. Under the rules of the World Trade Organization, high tariffs are not allowed, except in retaliation to a foreign competitor’s protectionism. China, for example, is now paying such a price for subsidizing its solar companies, giving them an unfair advantage over American firms like SolarWorld.

But, in many ways, the damage is done. Since receiving subsidies from the Chinese government, several Chinese companies have overtaken their American competitors. If we want to fight back, we’ll have to do the same with loan guarantees, tax credits, and major government purchases (all of which are allowed by the WTO).

But the Romney plan features nothing of the sort.

Sadly, we’ve seen this indifference before. As Judith Stein documents in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, we have watched too many opportunities go by since the 1970s, allowing foreign governments to subsidize their manufacturers while ours closed factories.

This is another such opportunity. But instead of seizing it, Romney is content to allow it to fall into the hands of the Chinese, just as he is willing to let the environment fall into the hands of Big Oil. The future will just have to fend for itself.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The World That Mitt Romney Wants to Build…for the One Percent

“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” — Michael Kinsley

Mitt Romney really stepped in it this time. His only saving grace is that no one noticed…yet.

In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Romney indicated that, under his tax plan, “high-income people would continue to pay the same share of the tax burden that they do today.”

This quote doesn’t sound like a gaffe until you put it together with the rest of Romney’s promises. Under his tax plan, those “high-income people” would face much lower tax rates.

This seemed odd to me. The same tax burden with lower rates? Wouldn’t that mean they’d have to earn a heck of a lot more money before taxes?

As it turns out, yes. Yes, they would.

If Romney gets his way, the top 1 percent will pay an average federal tax rate of 22.5 percent, down from the 28.3 percent rate they paid in 2007. The average federal tax rate for the nation as a whole will fall from 19.9 percent to 17.4 percent. (This is assuming Romney doesn’t eliminate a bunch of deductions and credits, in which case most people’s tax rate would actually go up and the number I’m about to report would be worse. I’m giving Romney the benefit of the doubt here.)

In 2007, the top 1 percent paid 26.2 percent of the nation’s taxes. In order to maintain that share of the tax burden, as Romney suggested in his interview, the top 1 percent would have to earn 33.9 percent of the nation’s pretax income.

33.9 percent. One in three dollars of our nation’s output will go into the pockets of the richest 1 percent. To put that into context, in 2007, the top 1 percent pocketed 18.7 percent of pretax income. In 1979, they earned 8.9 percent.

Let’s take Romney at his word. Let’s try to imagine what the world will look like if the top 1 percent earns 33.9 percent of pretax income.

In order to earn that much income, CEO compensation will soar. The financial sector will probably double its share of corporate profits. Leveraged buyouts and other short-term gimmicks will become more prevalent, and many more manufacturing jobs will disappear, replaced by low-wage, no-benefit service jobsif they’re replaced at all. Wages for the average worker will decline relative to inflation. Most households will have to work more hours just to maintain their standard of living, but even that won’t be enough. Households will sink deeper in debt just to stay afloat. As a result, financial crises will become more frequent and more prolonged. Wall Street will thrive, creating ever more complex financial securities that prey on ever more naïve borrowers.

That’s another thing: Lack of education. Well, you can expect poverty to go up, and therefore students’ test scores will go down. But don’t expect the government to pick up the slack with more funding because the top 1 percent is no friend to high public education spendingor food stamps or Medicaid or pretty much anything that would help poor kids.

And in a world where they’re earning one-third of the nation’s income, the top 1 percent is going to have twice the influence they currently have in Congress. So you can expect plenty of corporate subsidies, especially for Big Oil. Forget about clean energy. We’ll import all that stuff from China. You see, the 1 percent doesn’t like to nurture new industries when they threaten the old monopolies.

Of course, not everyone in the 1 percent thinks or acts the same. They’re a diverse and brilliant and, in many ways, admirable bunch. But 1 percent of the population should not control one-third of the economy, no matter how impressive they may be.

You may think I’m an alarmist. Surely the future won’t be that bad.

Well, guess what: Everything I just described has been happening for the past three decades. And it all happened while the 1 percent doubled its share of pretax income.

Welcome to the future. How do you like it so far?

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Myth of the Lazy Poor

On his recent trip to Israel, Mitt Romney attributed the poverty of the Palestinians to their “culture,” citing the work of economic historians David Landes and Jared Diamond. Middle East experts have rightly denounced Romney’s remarks as racist, ignorant, and untrue. Jared Diamond himself took to the op-ed page of the New York Times to set the record straight: “That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.”

This kind of claim is common among our political elite. We regularly hear accusations against the “culture of poverty” on our own shores, ranging from the famous Moynihan Report in 1965 to the so-called “welfare queen” that Ronald Reagan created to get elected. The inverse is equally common. Peruse your local bookstore, and you’re bound to find half a dozen authors attributing the rapid growth of China (or, a few years ago, Japan) to their unique Eastern brand of capitalism.

But these stereotypes — good and bad — are hardly ever true, as proven by this excerpt from Cambridge development economist Ha-Joon Chang’s eye-opening book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism:*

Having toured lots of factories in a developing country, an Australian management consultant told the government officials who had invited him: “My impression as to your cheap labor was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed me that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage.”

This Australian consultant was understandably worried that the workers of the country he was visiting did not have the right work eithic. In fact, he was being quite polite. He could have been blunt and just called them lazy. No wonder the country was poor — not dirt poor, but with an income level that was less than a quarter of Australia’s.

The country in question…was Japan in 1915. It doesn’t feel quite right that someone from Australia (a nation known today for its ability to have a good time) could call the Japanese lazy. But this is how most westerners saw Japan a century ago.

In his 1903 book, Evolution of the Japanese, the American missionary Sidney Gulick observed that many Japanese “give an impression…of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time.” Gulick was no casual observer. He lived in Japan for 25 years (1888-1913), fully mastered the Japanese language, and taught in Japanese university. After his return to the US, he was known for his campaign for racial equality on behalf of Asian Americans. Nevertheless, he saw ample confirmation of the cultural stereotype of the Japanese as an “easy-going” and “emotional” people who possessed qualities like “lightness of heart, freedom from all anxiety for the future, living chiefly for the present.” The similarity between this observation and that of today’s Africa, in this case by an African himself — Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, a Cameroonian engineer and writer — is striking: “The African, anchored in his ancestral culture, is so convinced that the past can only repeat itself that he worries only superficially about the future. However, without a dynamic perception of the future, there is no planning, no future, no scenario building; in other words, no policy to affect the course of events.”

After her tour of Asia in 1911-1912, Beatrice Webb, the famous leader of British Fabian socialism, described the Japanese as having “objectionable notions of leisure and a quite intolerable personal independence.” She said that, in Japan, “there is evidently no desire to teach people to think.” She was even more scathing about my ancestors. She described the Koreans as “12 millions of dirty, degraded, lazy, and religionless savages who slouch about in dirty white garments of the most inept kind and who live in filthy mudhuts.”

This was not just a western prejudice against eastern peoples. The British used to say similar things about the Germans. Before their economic take-off in the mid-19th century, the Germans were typically described by the British as “a dull and heavy people.” “Indolence” was a word that was frequently associated with the Germanic nature. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, wrote in exasperation after a particularly frustrating altercation with her German coach-driver: “the Germans never hurry.” It wasn’t just the British. A French manufacturer who employed German workers complained that they “work as and when they please.”

The British also considered the Germans to be slow-witted. According to John Russell, a travel writer of the 1820s, the Germans were a “plodding, easily contented people…endowed neither with great acuteness of perception nor quickness of feeling.” In particular, according to Russell, they were not open to new ideas; “it is long before [a German] can be brought to comprehend the bearings of what is new to him, and it is difficult to rouse him to ardor in its pursuit.” No wonder that they were “not distinguished by enterprise or activity,” as another mid-19th century British traveler remarked.

Germans were also deemed to be too individualistic and unable to cooperate with each other. Once again, compare this with a comment by the African observer that I quoted above: “African societies are like a football team in which, as a result of personal rivalries and a lack of team spirit, one player will not pass the ball to another out of fear that the latter might score a goal.”

British travelers in the early 19th century also found the Germans dishonest — “the tradesman and the shopkeeper take advantage of you wherever they can, and to the smallest imaginable amount rather than not take advantage of you at all… This knavery is universal,” observed Sir Arthur Brooke Faulkner, a physician serving in the British army.

Ever since the East Asian economic “miracle,” it has become very popular to argue that it was Confucian culture that was responsible, at least partly, for the region’s economic successes. Confucian culture, it was pointed out, emphasizes hard work, education, frugality, cooperation, and obedience to authority.

But, before the East Asian economic “miracle,” people used to blame Confucianism for the region’s underdevelopment. For Confucianism does have a lot of aspects that are inimical to economic development.

Confucianism discourages people from taking up professions like business and engineering that are necessary for economic development. At least in theory, individual peasants could gain entry into the ruling class if they passed the competitive civil service examination (and they occasionally did). Artisans and merchants, however, were not even allowed to sit for the examination.

To make matters worse, the civil service examination only tested people for their scholastic knowledge of the Confucian classics, which made the ruling class scornful of practical knowledge. Scholar-bureaucrats were supposed to live in “clean poverty”…and thus they actively looked down upon money-making.

Confucianism also discourages creativity and entrepreneurship. It has a rigid social hierarchy and, as I have noted, prevents certain segments of society (artisans, merchants) from moving upwards. This rigid hierarchy is sustained by an emphasis on loyalty to superiors and deference to authority, which breeds conformism and stifles creativity.

We can perform the same exercise with any culture’s belief system. Take the case of Islam.

Muslim culture is today considered by many to hold back economic development.

Alternatively, we could say that, unlike many other cultures, Muslim culture does not have a fixed social hierarchy… Therefore, people who work hard and creatively are rewarded. Moreover, unlike in the Confucian hierarchy, there is no disdain for industrial or business activities. Muhammad, the Prophet, was a merchant himself. And being a merchant’s religion, Islam has a highly developed sense of contracts… This orientation encourages the rule of law and justice — Muslim countries had trained judges hundreds of years before Christian countries. There is also an emphasis on rational thinking and learning — the Prophet notably said that “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” This is one of the reasons why the Arab world once led the world in mathematics, science, and medicine.

All this is not to deny that how people behave makes a difference to economic development. But the point is that people’s behavior is not determined by culture.

People from rich countries routinely believe that poor countries are poor because their people are lazy. But many people in poor countries actually work long hours in backbreaking conditions. What makes them appear lazy is often their lack of an “industrial” sense of time. When you work with basic tools or simple machinery, you don’t have to keep time strictly. If you are working in an automated factory, it’s essential. People from rich countries often interpret this difference in sense of time as laziness.

It is true that there are a lot more people “lazing around” in poor countries. But is it because those people culturally prefer lounging about to working hard? Usually not. It is mainly because poor countries have a lot of people who are unemployed or underemployed (i.e., people may have jobs but do not have enough work to occupy them fully). This is the result of economic conditions rather than culture. The fact that immigrants from poor countries with “lazy” cultures work much harder than the locals when they more to rich countries proves the point.

As for the once much-vaunted “dishonesty” of the Germans in the past, when a country is poor, people often resort to unethical, or even illegal, means to make a living. Poverty also means weak law enforcement, which lets people get away with illegal behavior, and makes breaking the law more “culturally” acceptable.

“Living for today” or being “easy-going” — words that many people associate with Africa and Latin America nowadays — are also the consequences of economic conditions. In a slowly changing economy, there is not much need to plan for the future; people plan for the future only when they anticipate new opportunities (e.g., new careers) or unexpected shocks (e.g., a sudden inflow of new imports). Moreover, poor economies offer few devices with which people can plan for the future (e.g., credit, insurance, contracts).

In other words, culture changes with economic development. It would be far more accurate to say that countries become “hardworking” and “disciplined” (and acquire other “good” cultural traits) because of economic development, rather than the other way around.

==========

*This excerpt has been lightly edited to accommodate American spellings and this blog’s punctuation style.

Outsourcing Isn’t an Excuse to Abandon the Working Class

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree on one thing: Outsourcing is a problem.

Of course, they disagree on who’s to blame. To Obama, it’s private equity firms like Romney’s Bain Capital. To Romney, it’s deficit spending like Obama’s 2009 fiscal stimulus.

(As I pointed out two weeks ago, there’s plenty of evidence that the 2009 stimulus created millions of jobs right here in America. But never mind.)

“Countries around the world are…giving their workers and companies every advantage possible,” says Obama, but “we can win that competition.”

On Romney’s website, you can find the same language. He says our tax code “needs to be more competitive and business friendly.” We need to create a “level playing field for American products in foreign markets.”

This rhetoric is more dangerous than it seems.

It’s true that many of our exports are at a disadvantage. In countries that we trade with, the average manufacturing wage is 65 percent of the American average. In Mexico, manufacturing workers earn 11 percent of what their U.S. counterparts make. In China, they earn 3 percent.

So, the question is: Just how “level” does Mitt Romney want the “playing field” to be?

When it comes to outsourcing, Romney has a solution, but he won’t say it…because you won’t like it: The easiest way to create a “level playing field” is to lower American wages.

The dirty secret about Republican economics is that it’s all about cheap labor.

While most of the industrialized world (and much of the developing world) has experienced rising real wages in the past thirty years, American wages have stagnated.

Union membership has plummeted. The minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation. Taxes and regulations that previously restricted the rich from siphoning the wealth of the middle class have been eviscerated.

In short, Mitt Romney’s game plan has already been put to the test.

We were told that it was a new era. We were told that we needed to sacrifice our job security, our wage increases, our retirement benefits — all in the name of globalization. We were told that America couldn’t compete with those costs around its neck. We were told that the manufacturing sector was deadweight. We were told that the working class was pulling us down. We were promised a better world filled with high-tech jobs and rapid innovation, low taxes and rising asset prices, cheap imports and even cheaper investments.

We did everything we were told. We gave up our protections and our power. And, in return, we got lower economic growth, higher inequality, productivity growth that went almost entirely to the top 1 percent, and — irony of all ironies — even bigger trade deficits.

All that cheap labor didn’t make us “competitive” after all.

All it did was line corporate coffers with more profits than ever before.

But not everyone made that mistake. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, U.S. tax revenue is currently 27 percent of GDP. In Denmark, it’s a whopping 49 percent. They have the world’s highest minimum wage and arguably the lowest level of income inequality. Yet their unemployment rate (7.7 percent) is currently lower than ours (8.1 percent), and their economy grew at the same rate as ours from 1979 to 2007.

For another comparison, look at Sweden, where tax revenue is 48 percent of GDP. They consistently battle Denmark for the world’s lowest level of income inequality, yet they’re also ranked as the second most competitive country in the world (after Switzerland). Their unemployment rate (7.8 percent) is also lower than ours, and their economy grew faster than ours from 1979 to 2007.

Needless to say, unions are more prevalent and powerful in both of these countries than in the U.S. But arguably the most heavily unionized country is Germany, where employee representatives sit on corporate boards and have a say in industry-wide decisions. Germany’s unemployment rate (5.6 percent) is way lower than ours, and they boast a large trade surplus.

Clearly, we can raise wages and compete in the global economy at the same time. We don’t need a “level playing field” to beat outsourcing. We just need a proactive government.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.