China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘infrastructure’ tag

Top Six Questions for the Coming Chinese Structural Economic Shift

leave a comment

With the coming onset of recession in China, the most important question to ask is: is it cyclical or structural? All answers currently point to structural. In fact, a slightly lower growth rate that comes with massive structural changes to the economy is a good thing and much more sustainable in the long-term. The next question to ask is whether those structural changes are even happening and if so whether they are succeeding. In that vein, here are the most important questions relevant to the coming Chinese structural economic shift:
  1. Will more rounds of infrastructure stimulus be effective?
  2. What is the liability of local government debt?
  3. How does China liberalize capital accounts without a replay of the late-90’s Asian crisis or large-scale capital flight from well-off Chinese/corrupt CCP officials?
  4. What mix of policies gets China to higher domestic consumption?
  5. How big of a drag on the economy are negative externalities like the environment?
  6. How is China meeting its current and future energy needs?

Final bonus question: is the CCP implementing responses to these challenges?

Written by Will

September 8th, 2012 at 11:16 am

Can Frank Luntz Be Serious?

leave a comment

This is a joke:

“The last time Republicans gained control of the House, in 1994, they achieved more in the first 100 days than some Congresses have in two years. From welfare reform to tax cuts to a balanced budget amendment, they passed every one of their 10 ‘Contract With America’ items. … Once again, Republicans cannot be timid. American voters overwhelmingly support spending cuts to balance the budget; six in 10 of them support a 21 percent across-the-board cut in nonmilitary discretionary spending.”

Reality check: the 111th Congress, as in this Congress (yes, the one where Democrats have been in power), has been one of the most productive in history, on par with congress during the early years of both LBJ and FDR. Luntz cites: “welfare reform to tax cuts to a balanced budget amendment” as examples of Republican productivity 15 years ago. The problem is: everyone loves a tax cut. Everyone loves to cut welfare for Cadillac mommies. And the balanced budget amendment never passed the Senate. And then they shut down government over the deficit. So much for that: we got rid of the deficit by the end of the decade anyway, mostly because of a booming economy.

There are no natural constituencies against for what the Republicans are for. The poor on welfare don’t have a voice in government, but business does. While there might exist policy analysts who think certain tax cuts are bad for our budgets, there’s no constituency who is going to refuse one. Many Democratic priorities, however, require a gentler finesse in order to get passed. In other words, there are vested interests who will lose money if Congress acts for the greater good. It requires some politicking to persuade these vested interests, and that’s hard.

Here are some things the 111th Congress has accomplished: stimulus, which in itself represents a dramatic investment in infrastructure, schools, and a tax cut all rolled into one; healthcare reform, which could be split up into numerous major bills, such as closing the Medicare doughnut hole, providing coverage to 40 million Americans, requiring pre-existing conditions to be covered, allowing kids to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, making sure all children have health insurance, and reducing the rise in the growth of healthcare spending; financial regulatory reform, which both forms a consumer protection agency to ward against faulty financial products that will explode in consumers’ faces, and derivatives that will likewise explode in bankers’ faces; Ted Kennedy’s final legacy, the SERVE America Act, which dramatically expands the number of young people serving in AmeriCorps and creates a ‘Social Innovation Fund’, which funds evidence-based programs with private and foundational support in pursuit of solving major social challenges; tobacco-regulation legislation; credit-card legislation, which establishes a credit-card bill of rights and bans arbitrary interest rate increases; fully funding and expanding the Veterans Administration; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (for all the ladies out there); fully funding the Violence Against Women Act (again, for the ladies); student loan reform and increased access to Pell Grants; Promise Neighborhood legislation (one of my favorite, and under-exposed in the entire bunch); cracking down on mortgage fraud; and more jobs legislation than I can count, including the Advanced Manufacturing Fund for innovative manufacturing strategies, expanded loan programs in the Small Business Administration, Energy Partnership for the Americas, creating markets overseas for our clean-energy industries, fully funding the Community Development Block Grant, job-training programs for clean energy technologies, and of course, everything already in the Stimulus Act.

Whew. That was a lot. And it makes Frank Luntz argument look ridiculous. Luntz says the Democrats loss is not about “deficient personalities or insufficient communication,” but about wrong priorities. I’m sorry, but Democrats promised this exact agenda when they were elected, and they delivered.

Luntz’s policy suggestions are likewise inane:

(1) Balance the budget as quickly as possible through meaningful spending reductions, a hard spending cap and a constitutional amendment so that it never gets unbalanced again.

(2) Eliminate all earmarks until the budget is balanced, then require a two-thirds vote by Congress for future earmark legislation.

(3) Keep taxes down by requiring supermajorities for increases, and eventually enact tax reform with a simple, low, fair rate that drastically reduces the length of the IRS code.

(4) Create a blue-ribbon task force that engages in a complete, line-by-line forensic audit of federal agencies and programs to end waste and reduce red tape and bureaucracy.

(5) And require Congress to provide specific constitutional authorization for every bill it passes so that the government stays within the boundaries imagined by the founders.

1) Spending reductions won’t get the job done without reductions in the rate of spending growth, especially in the medical sector, while a spending cap is unwieldy and not specific enough; 2) earmarks comprise a pitifully small portion of the annual deficit; 3) supermajority-requirements for tax increases have ruined California’s budget outlook and are a bad idea, while a “simple, low, fair rate” (i.e. the flat tax) is regressive and rewards the rich while punishing the poor; 4) a line-by-line audit of the budget is already being done – there’s already a non-military discretionary spending freeze; 5) who decides what’s acceptable in the eyes of the Constitution? Some wackos think the Constitution was written by Moses. I think this is the job of the Supreme Court, a job it has successfully carried out since Marbury v. Madison.

Ultimately, collective political behavior can seem irrational. Democrats ran on a specific platform, got elected in historic numbers, passed most of their platform, and then got dumped in historic numbers. But really, it’s just the floundering economy, and the Federal Government’s inability to fix a massive sink-hole in demand (now if this were the Reagan recession, which was actually created by the Fed and interest rates were raised to break stratospheric inflation in the late 70’s, it would be a lot easier to fix – just lower interest rates). What do I take from all of this? The Democrats’ loss has to do with anything but their policy accomplishments, and the political winds during a massive recession can switch on a dime.

National Infrastructure Bank?

leave a comment

Here’s an idea, of which I was reminded of in the Brookings Institution’s “Export Nation” report: a National Infrastructure Bank. These days it seems the only way Congress is able to act is when it spins off its powers to another institution (re: the Independent Medicare Advisory Committee, or IMAC). Regardless, I would look forward to an infrastructure bank. Instead of re-appropriating funds every year, which could be discouraged in times like these, an infrastructure bank could be more nimble and light on its feet. This is a useful quality when one considers the vast demand for infrastructure investment.

Written by Will

August 3rd, 2010 at 5:08 am

Rebuilding America

leave a comment

The lede from a WSJ article yesterday made me laugh – conservatives continually harp that Ben Bernanke and the Fed must do all in their power to curb the inflationary tendencies associated with the coming economic recovery. Of course, no inflation has arrived, and neither has economic recovery – the US is in a deflationary period. But this doesn’t stop the WSJ now complaining of the Fed’s inaction in dealing with unemployment. The paper finally takes the Fed’s inflation targets at face value – a rare occurrence.

But this raises the question – what can the Fed actually do to combat the recession now? Monetary policy is a blunt hatchet – lowering interest rates makes borrowing easier across all sectors of the economy, but isn’t guaranteed to work. In this analogy, fiscal policy is a scalpel. Congress can target individual economic sectors – construction, for example, can be boosted through infrastructure expenditures. Unfortunately for us, neither looks likely to happen any time soon. Interest rates are now at their lowest, and a second stimulus (despite statements to the contrary) is dead in the water. And even if the Fed or Congress did manage to take action of some sort, it would be far too late now to affect the economy before the the end of the year.

What else is left when policy fails? Politics. In a utopia, the benefits of a particular policy would be obvious to completely rational, politically-engaged citizens. But that’s not how it works. The only way for the Obama administration to inspire confidence in the public is to act confidently. Those who are actually committed to sane economic policy (i.e., not deficit hypocrites who would vote for the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts) need to think big – rebuilding America big – because politics, unfortunately, comes before policy.

Written by Will

July 25th, 2010 at 11:58 pm