Illegal Aliens

The reliable and predictable rule of law is an important part of the foundation of our free and prosperous society. Our immigration laws, which favor extended family members of legal residence, have not met America’s employment needs for decades. As a result, the number of illegal aliens in the U.S. is now estimated to be between 11 – 11.5 million. Most of them entered legally and overstayed their visas. To a large extent, the legal status of most of these illegal immigrants has been ignored, which undermines the rule of law.

A number of efforts to “fix” the immigration laws, in part to provide a pathway to legal status for long time illegal immigrants, have so far failed. For example, the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) was first introduced in 2001 and would have provided conditional legal residency for anyone who had entered the U.S. before the age of 16, lived here for at least five years, graduated from a U.S. high school, and passed criminal background checks. After passing additional conditions they could become legal permanent residents (green card holders). Most recently the Gang of Eight (4 Democrats and 4 Republicans) U.S. Senators agreed on a law passed by the Senate but not the House as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, which would, among other things, have provided a pathway to legal status for many “undocumented” residents.

Thus for some time the status of undocumented workers and others has been ignored or only lightly enforced in limited cases. About three quarters of the 11 million illegal immigrants have jobs. These exceed slightly the number of unemployed Americans of 7.6 million, which is considered full employment, who are temporarily between jobs. In short, deporting all illegal workers would seriously cripple the American economy; and thus their status has been routinely ignored. Over recent decades this state of affairs might be characterized as having become the customary law but it clearly violates statutory law. This should not go on without adjusting the law to reflect what society is willing to enforce.

The recent wave of arrests of illegal aliens appears to be a change in this customary law without a change in statutory law. “Fear and panic have gripped America’s immigrant community as reports circulate that federal agents have become newly aggressive under President Trump, who campaigned for office with a vow to create a ‘deportation force.’” “Immigrant-community-on-high-alert-fearing-trumps-deportation-force/2017/02/11/”. This is the wrong way to address the problem. Congress should step up and formally adopt immigration reform that enjoys broad support.


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Looking Back on Occupy Wall Street

The evening of September 16, 2008, I met Randy Kroszner for dinner at Et Voila in the Palisades just outside of Georgetown. He arrived late explaining that the Fed’s monthly monetary policy meeting had lasted longer than expected. Randy is a Governor on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The attempt to rescue Lehman Brothers over the weekend had failed and it had declared bankruptcy the day before, so we had a lot of interesting things to talk about. Randy didn’t mention that the Fed had just agreed to lend up to $85 billion to AIG to cover its expected loses on its mortgage related Credit Default Swaps, thus giving the U.S. government a 79.9% equity stake in the insurer in the form of warrants called equity participation notes. When news of the AIG bailout was posted on my phone around 9:00pm during our meal, I asked Randy what in the world was going on. He was reluctant to discuss the topic uncertain whether the source of my news was a leak or an official Fed press release.

The housing bubble had started to deflate in 2007 and homeowners and their mortgage financiers were coming to grips with the reality of significant financial losses. “The DEFs of the Financial Markets Crisis” and “The Big Bailout–What Next?” While the Federal Reserve quickly reacted to inject liquidity into the banking system to compensate for the freezing up of the interbank credit market that followed the Lehman Brothers-AIG shockwaves, the key questions were who would bear these losses and how should they be contained to avoid spilling over to the financial system more broadly.

The Fed, with the help of $700 billion authorized by Congress in the Troubled Asset Relieve Program (TARP), bailed out Wall Street and contained the spread of potential bank failures. It was a scary time for all involved. Looking back from the relative calm of today with criticism of policy actions taken then is a bit unfair but how else are we to learn from experience?

The government actions in 2008 can be broadly stated as: a) providing all of the liquidity the financial sector needed following the Lehman Brothers collapse and financial panic; b) bailing out large banks and other financial institutions that might have been insolvent whether they were or not; and c) leaving underwater homeowners to drown. The first of these—providing liquidity—is universally accepted as a proper function of a central bank and one that the Fed executed well. The other two—bailing out banks but not homeowners—are the subjects of this note. I will review them from both an economic and a political perspective.

The economic rational for bailing out Wall Street was that there was a risk, with very uncertain probability, of the failure of large Wall Street institutions spilling over to and bankrupting other financial institutions holding assets in the failed Wall Street firms. Many of them were foreign (especially German Landesbanks) and no one knew for sure where the contagion might end. By saving Wall Street, the argument went, the government was saving Main Street as well (trickle down). Sheila Bair, then the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, among others urged the government to bail out homeowners who were defaulting on their mortgages as well. While different policies of homeowner relief were considered the one finally adopted, Home Affordable Refinance Program—HARP, was modest and left Ms. Bair quite unhappy: “Shortly after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced their new plan, Ms. Bair declared that it was inadequate and pointedly said that the government had spent hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out financial institutions like American International Group, the giant insurer.” “White House scales back a Mortgage relief plan”

From economists’ perspective, bailing out anyone creates a moral hazard. If market players profit from risky bets when successful but expect that the government will pick up the tab when they are unsuccessful, they will take greater (excessive) risks. No one was eager to bail out property flippers (those who bought property with the intention of reselling it at a higher price rather than move in) from their failed gamble. But the same logic applies to those financial firms that lent the mortgage money in the first place or that kept the financing cheap by providing it from the derivatives market of Mortgage Backed Securities, etc. Government policy makers attempted to design their bailouts to minimize the moral hazard they were creating, especially after the foolish and panic driven bailout of Bear Stearns in March 2008. But policy was driven by government’s fear of financial contagion.

The political optics of bailing out mortgage lenders but not homeowners is not good. Why did politicians choose to support one but not the other? Moral hazard is a problem with both. The reality is that Washington politicians were (are) much closer to Wall Street than to Main Street and are thus more sensitive to Wall Street’s concerns. Growing recognition of this fact adds some understanding to the hostile attitudes toward Washington expressed by Trump supporters.

By far the better policy would have been, and in the future is, to stick by the existing rules for bearing losses (our bankruptcy and default laws), i.e. no government bailouts. Our bankruptcy laws and procedures are actually quite good. “Resolving Failed Banks” For starters Bear Stearns shareholders should have lost everything. On the underwater homeowner side, mortgage lenders have always sought to minimize their losses when borrowers are unable to repay according to the original terms of a loan. Often the least cost resolution is for the lender to agree to easier terms and to restructure the loan. Evicting the “owner” and selling the property, especially when it is under water (i.e. valued at less than the mortgage amount), is a costly undertaking and writing down and restructuring the loan is often the least cost approach. However, government driven programs can rarely match the lenders’ ability to restructure loans one by one that can be honored by the homeowner while minimizing the loss to the lender. “Changing direction on bank regulation”

Our government has increasingly attempted to micromanage the private sector, especially the financial sector. This is a mistake. It should establish clear and pragmatic rules for conducting business and for resolving failures (workable bankruptcy laws). “Institutional and Legal Impediments to Efficient Insolvent Bank Resolution and Ways to Overcome Them” Within this broad legal framework, which to a large extent already exists, individual firms would be held accountable for the conduct of their business by their customers and their owners. If they fail, the first losses must fall on the owners (shareholders), who have a greater incentive to do well and have better market information on which to act than do government regulators. This requires a change in attitude and direction of government’s role in our lives.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy and Mexico

“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America first!” Video of Trump’s inaugural address. Or was it “Trump First?”

If President Trump’s plea for others, such as Mexico, to treat the U.S. fairly were merely an embarrassing gesture, we might overlook it having grown used to Trump’s need for approval. But this is the status and fate of my country at stake. In a hysterical satire made by Dutch television, they ask whether if America is First, they might be second: Dutch youtube satire

There is little disagreement that American foreign policy should serve America’s interests. Even the neocons see the promotion of democracy as ultimately good for America, if we can survive the wars they want us to fight to impose it on the rest of the world. We have and should continue to see our interests in long-run terms—enlightened self interest. As he has shortsightedly done with trade, “Trump outlined a world in which foreign relations are collapsed into a zero-sum game. They gain, we lose.” Charles Krauthammer on Trump’s foreign policy revolution /2017/01/26/.

The real issue is which policies actually serve our interests. These policies should keep us safe and prosperous.

Military: Obviously we need a military capability sufficient to protect our shores from attack, but we need to avoid devoting more of our resources to our military than necessary for that purpose (with a reasonable margin for error) because every dollar spent on the military is a dollar taken away from building our economic strength, which is equally important for our defense and well being.

Diplomacy: We also need to invest in building good relations with other countries, especially our immediate neighbors, in part to minimize the prospect of ever needing to use our military. Thus we must devote the resources, including training, needed by our State Department to build our effective soft power. In an article in Time magazine January 26, 2017, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union said:   “No problem is more urgent today than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority.” Gorbachev on Putin – Trump

Treaties: But here is the part least appreciated by the American public and least understood by Trump (I don’t know about the rest of his team yet and eagerly await his appointment to the Undersecretary of State position). Just as the rule of law has been critical to development and vitality of our economy and the protection of our liberties at home, it remains as important when we cross the border. This extends far beyond the critically important agreements on trade, the international monetary system, and the rules of war, to the more mundane aspects of every day life as well.

According to The Washington Post: “Trump proposes internal high-level committees to examine multilateral treaties, with a view toward leaving them….

“John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal counsel to both the National Security Council and the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, said the treaty examination was based on a ‘false premise . . . that the United States has become party to numerous multi­lateral treaties that are not in the United States’ interest.’

“’There are “many hundreds of multi­lateral treaties that help Americans every day in concrete ways,’ he said. Without them, ‘Americans could not have our letters delivered in foreign countries; could not fly over foreign countries or drive on foreign roads using our state driver’s licenses; could not have access to a foreign consular official if we are arrested abroad; could not have our children returned if abducted by a parent; and could not prevent foreign ships from polluting our waters.’” Trump-lays-groundwork-to-change-US-role-in-the-world/2017/01/26/

The Bretton Woods institutions created after World War II (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization) established the institutional arrangements for cooperation in developing the rules of international trade and finance. American leadership in creating the international institutions through which we interact with others abroad, i.e., through which the rule of law is established and enforced internationally, has ensured that the international order has remained true to the liberal values on which America was founded. We would be wise to keep China as strong and active a member of these institutions and the rules they oversee as possible. US global leadership and the AIIB. It would be tragically misguided to undermine these institutions and our leadership of them. But this is the direction President Trump seems to be headed.

Mexico: Close to home, Mexico provides a tragic example of Trump’s failing approach to foreign policy. Our relationship with Mexico is one of our most important in the world. We share a 2,000 mile border with Mexico and it is our second largest export market earning $235 billion in 2016 while importing $296 billion worth of goods and services. The difference of $61 billion, the so-called trade deficit, reflects net Mexican investments in the U.S. Though Mexicans have been leaving the U.S. on net for the last few years, illegal immigration across our shared border has been a big campaign issue for Trump, and the Mexican border is the gateway for many non-Mexican Central American illegal immigrants. The flow of drugs across that border is also an issue.

Close cooperation with Mexico in dealing with these issues has been a critical aspect of managing them. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been an enormous benefit. Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas told G.H.W. Bush that “goods bought by American consumers will be produced by Mexican workers, it is only a question of where those Mexican workers live!” He also indicated that in addition to jobs that keep Mexicans in Mexico, NAFTA also helped bring the rule of law to Mexico. Jerry Jordon

Illegal immigration reflects and responds to the incentives faced by potential immigrants. These include the quality of life, including jobs, in their home country, the demand for workers in the U.S., and the option of legal immigration. The problem of illegal immigration to the U.S. would be helped by a better legal immigration law, such as proposed by George W Bush in 2007 or later as contained in the Senate law drafted by the Gang of Eight in 2013. Better enforcement of work permit requirements with American employers could help a great deal.

President Trump’s approach has been grossly adversarial rather than cooperative. He has threatened to tear up (or at least renegotiate) NAFTA and build a wall on the U.S. –Mexican border that he would force Mexico to pay for. His approach is disastrously wrong. “President Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, has been clear about his views on a border wall with Mexico: It won’t work.” Homeland Security John Kelly on border wall – NYT. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim stated that: “The best wall is investment, which generates employment in Mexico…. Mexico is the best partner the U.S. has.” Mexico digs in and Trump lashes back as border wall standoff deepens /2017/01/27/

The Mayor of Berlin Michael Mueller urged US President Donald Trump “not to go down the road of isolation.” He warned that such division causes “slavery and pain” and would “destroy the lives of millions.” BBC 1/27/2017. This doesn’t seem fully applicable to the Mexican wall, but still the Berliners know a lot about walls. John Oliver provides a hilarious but informative commentary on The Wall on Last Week Tonight. John Oliver video on The Wall

President Trump’s continued insistence on building the wall and his insulting claim that Mexico will pay for it has damaged the cooperative relationship that we badly need to maintain with Mexico. Trump’s tweet that Mexico should pay for the wall or Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto should cancel his planned visit to Washington and stay home is an insult beneath the dignity of an American President as well as stupid. That President Trump is surely ignorant of these and other seriously damaging knock on effects of his mishandling of our relations with Mexico is no excuse for his insane behavior. Trump’s ruinous stance on Mexico-deportation-border-wall-tariff-trade.

“For 70 years, we sustained an international system of open commerce and democratic alliances that has enabled America and the West to grow and thrive. Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.” [Krauthammer]

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Trust and False News

January 26, 2017

The quality and extent of interactions among people (neighbors, companies, governments) profoundly affect our quality of life. Trust is a critically important element of such interactions and of “The Wealth of Nations,” to quote Adam Smith. No society, beyond (perhaps) the family and relatives, enjoys total trust. The willingness to and low cost of dealing with others in such a society would surely make it the richest one on earth. The more distant our relationship with someone, however, e.g., hiring a contractor to add a room to the house, the more formal our understandings need to be. But the deeper and more reliable is trust within a society, the simpler such contracts and their enforcement can be. This goes well beyond the obvious costs (effectively taxes) of doing business of security guards and surveillance cameras at department stores. More Trust frees up resources to produce the goods and services that we really want.

As part of its attack on Europe and the United States, Russia for some time has systematically worked to undermine trust in the West. For example, it generates and distributes “false news” in a variety of ways. It has become more difficult to judge when news is true or deliberately made up. As a result, the public’s trust in public institutions and performance is eroded to some, hopefully still limited, extent. As I argued above, a decline in the level of trust in Western societies reduces their economic efficiency and output.

False news must be distinguished from biased reporting and from disputed facts, unfortunately labeled “alternative facts”, by Trump senior advisor Kelly Anne Conway. Bias, or priors as we economists put it, reflects our inner beliefs and tentative understandings about what is true and can influence what a reporter chooses to report or emphasize. It does not reflect a willingness to report or repeat knowingly false information. The strange case of the size of the viewing audience for Trump’s inauguration ceremony illustrates bias and a few other things on all sides.

Trump was angry that the press reported mediocre attendance to his inauguration. The highly respected conservative economist Tyler Cowen provided an interesting analysis of why he thinks Trump forced his poor press secretary Sean Spicer to launch an attack on the Press for its “misreporting” of this matter: Why trump’s staff is lying. During his first official press conference on January 23, Spicer stated very clearly several times that his assessment that Donald Trump had the largest audience for his inauguration in history referred to total viewers “both in person and around the globe”. After apologizing for having reported the previous Saturday incorrect numbers for subway ridership he proceeded to present his estimate of TV and Internet viewers along with mall attendants and asked the press to correct them if wrong. USA Today reported that “On that point, Spicer may be correct…. But there is no comprehensive measurement available that would prove or disprove this claim.” The attending press persisted in referring to the size of the crowd on the mall. That reflects bias by the Press to the point of blindness. That Trump felt compelled to speak out about the size of his audience is sad evidence that he has not yet properly transitioned from candidate to President (that the thin skinned, megalomaniac we watched during the campaign has not yet grown up).

Alternative facts abound and refer to a lack of consensus on what the facts are. These are the bread and butter of scientific investigation and debate. Whether global temperatures last year were higher or lower than the year before depends on the measurement instruments used (surface instruments of one type or another, satellite systems, etc.), their location (country side, urban areas, ocean, etc.), frequency of measurements (daily, hourly, etc.), etc. Meteorologists debate this “fact”.

Candidate Trump lied so frequently and so freely during his campaign that I can only assume that he did so deliberately as a part of a general disinformation campaign. His claim, for example, that President Obama was not native born was so irrefutably disproved that Trump eventually (but very late in the game) withdrew it. President Trump sadly continues the practice by following up his ludicrous claim that he won by a landslide, with the claim for which there is no factual support at all of wide spread voter fraud. Trumps-disregard-for-the-truth-threatens-his-ability-to-govern.

Poor Sean Spicer was forced to announce Trump’s voter fraud lie to the press. When asked for evidence he cited “A 2012 Pew study [that] found that about 1.8 million deceased people were still on the rolls and that 2.75 million people were registered in two states. The study called for states to clean up their voter rolls but did not draw conclusions about voter fraud.” Trumps-voter-fraud-claims-undermine-the-voting-system-and-his-presidency/2017/01/24/. In fact, Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is registered in both New York and Florida, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is registered in New York and California, and Trump’s daughter Tiffany is registered in both Philadelphia and New York though neither voted twice. Bannon-was-registered-to-vote-in-two-states. Recidivism-watch-Spicer-uses-repeatedly-debunked-citations-for-trumps-voter-fraud-claims.

Trump’s lies, whether he believes them himself or not, along with false news perpetrated by Russia and others, are increasingly undermining public trust in the information so freely available on the Internet and elsewhere. This is bad for our democracy. It is not obvious what motivates him.

“Is Trumpism a scam? And if so, whom is Donald Trump scamming?

“Or is the country confronting something even more troubling: a president unhinged from any realities that get in the way of his impulses, unmoored from any driving philosophy and willing to make everything up as he goes along, including “alternative facts”?

“Of course, there’s another possibility: that there’s a method in all of this.” E. J. Dionne, Jr. What’s-the-method-in-trumps-madness/2017/01/25/

It is one thing to disagree with the President’s policy proposals—we can discuss and debate the reasons for our differences—and quite another when we cannot trust the integrity of the President or his administration. When the President proclaims over and over that he will insure that we “Buy American and hire American” (so much for shifting power from Washington to the people), rather than explaining why this is such a bad policy—save-trade—we turn immediately to the President’s hypocrisy rather than the substance of his policy. In Trump’s own business dealings he buys his materials where they are cheapest—steel and aluminum from China (Newsweek), furnishings for his new Hotel in Washington DC from China (The-new-Trump-hotel-in-D-C-hotel-is-filled-top-to-bottom-with-goods-made-in-China), the clothing for his signature Donald J. Trump Collection from Mexico (Trumps-hypocrisy-on-trade-he-outsources-and-invests-globally-but-doesnt-want-Ford-to-do-the-same/), and the long list goes on (Trump products).

Trump’s business career is full of shady dealings (The-myth-and-the-reality-of-Donald Trumps-business-empire). Why would we have expected him to be different as POTUS? Trump the terrible. Lying has worked for Donald Trump—so why should he stop now? Why Trump lies.

Trump is very quickly running out of time to save his administration. His tweet this morning stated: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers… of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” As a result, the Mexican President cancelled his planned visit. Our current account deficit with Germany in 2015, by the way, was $285.2 billion, about the same as with China. Putting his economic ignorance (or blatant lying) aside, his conduct of foreign policy, trade or otherwise, is simply dangerous. We must stand up and yell STOP. STOP!!!

A glimmer of hope is offered by the fact (a real one) that orders for George Orwell’s classic novel of tyranny “1984” have soared in recent weeks.

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Keystone Pipeline, Jobs, and Confusion

Perhaps “haste makes waste” explains the jumble of contradictory statements coming from President Trump with regard to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects. Or maybe not?? Trump gives green light to Dakota Access Keystone XL oil pipelines. Trump’s trade and jobs rhetoric continues to alarm free market conservatives as well as our trading partners abroad (see the comments coming from a bewildered Germany wondering how to best protect their interests as Trump pursues what he—mistakenly—considered America’s interests).

The pipelines will save jobs (yes save jobs), improve safety, and reduce environmental risks compared with the existing alternatives of rail and trucking. Obama’s State Department reviews, which cleared the Keystone XL project multiple times, concluded in its final review that the Canadian oil in question was coming out of the ground with or without the Keystone XL pipeline and thus there would be no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions from the pipeline.

The same is true for the Dakota Access pipeline, the final 1,100 feet of which (of the 1,171 mile project) have been stopped because of objections by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe that it would “disturb sacred burial and archaeological sites.” WaPo.

On Tuesday, Trump said: “From now on, we’re going to be making pipeline in the United States. We build the pipelines, we want to build the pipe. We’re going to put a lot of workers, a lot of skilled workers, back to work. We will build our own pipeline, we will build our own pipes, like we used to in the old days.” WaPo

I am increasingly inclined to think that Trump’s blatant misrepresentations of the impact of his “Buy American, hire American” mantra is sinister demagoguery. TransCanada, the Canadian project owner had already planned to buy 65% of the steel pipe from U.S. manufacturers as a purely business decision. Replacing the remaining 35% with American made pipes would increase the cost of the project. It would also redeploy American workers from their current, presumable more productive, employment to make these pipes. It is hard to see what Trump doesn’t get about efficiency and productivity as a source of our wealth. If he insists on doing it “like we used to in the old days,” he will make us poorer as “in the old days.”

“Opponents of the pipeline dismissed the job numbers and economic impacts, arguing that pipelines will create only “a handful” of permanent jobs.

“But the fact that pipelines only have a handful of permanent workers simply conveys how remarkably efficient pipelines are. The high output of labor generates value and wealth and frees up Americans to be more productive elsewhere in the economy.”



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President Trump and manufacturing jobs

President Trump intends to bring back manufacturing jobs. How might he do that and what would it mean for our economy and our workers?

Keeping in mind that our manufacturing output has steadily increased over the years and is now at an all time high, though the number of manufacturing jobs has steadily declined. Bringing back manufacturing jobs means rolling back and undoing the technical advances that made manufacturing workings more productive. But if we increase the number of workers in manufacturing by making each worker less productive (shelving some of the productivity enhancing technical advances), where will these workers come from? Presumably not from Mexico. They will have to give up what they were producing before in order to take the new manufacturing jobs.

Looking more carefully at such a policy reveals that it would make us poorer. Without Trump’s arm twisting (carrots and sticks—tax breaks, i.e., bribes, and/or tax or other penalties), the workers in question would be employed doing things that were more profitable (i.e. more productive and contributed more to our income) than in manufacturing. Trump would have those workers move from where they are more productive to where they would be less productive. I assume that such a policy reflects ignorance rather than malice, but what ever his motivation, the result of Trump’s protectionist threats would be to lower our standard of living.

If President Trump intends to return power from the government to the people, as he claimed in his inauguration speech, he will have to stop threatening companies to produce things in the U.S. when they would otherwise find it more profitable (cheaper) to produce them abroad and import them. Anything and everything that adds to our economy’s productivity (specializing in what we are best at and exporting it to pay for imports that other countries are better at making) increases our incomes. Trump should stop interfering with our private economic decisions and get on with the other aspects of his promises (tax and regulatory reform) that will increase our well-being.

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Econ 101 – Jobs and Income Growth

At long last the economy has more or less reached full employment. The December 2016 unemployment rate was 4.7 percent while the Federal Reserve’s assessment of normal full employment (NAIRU—non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) is 4.8 percent. More over, wage growth has picked up, increasing 2.9 percent over a year earlier. The producer price index increased 0.3 percent in December (4.3% annualized). The economy is heating up. The Federal Reserve raised its overnight interbank interest rate target (Fed Funds rate) from 0.5 to 0.75 percent in December.

What does this mean for PEOTUS Trump’s goal to create jobs and increase the economy’s growth rate? At his press conference January 11, 2017 he claimed to be: “The greatest jobs producer God ever created.”

A new job is created when a company demands an additional worker for some reason or other and the desired worker is supplied. More jobs (by which I mean more new ones than the loss of old ones, i.e., a net increase in jobs) can come from any of three sources: a) an increase in the labor participation rate (more people looking for work from those of working age who are physically able to work); b) more young people entering the labor force than retiring old people leaving it; and c) a net immigration of working age foreigners. An increase in the demand for workers that cannot be filled will put upward pressure on wages and ultimately on prices.

In December the labor participation rate rose to 62.7 percent from its low in November of 62.6. It had been around 66 percent in the years just before the great recession of 2008. While we don’t really understand why so many people have dropped out of the labor force, there is scope to increase employment if some of them return. Some of the new jobs are filled by immigrants, especially those jobs requiring information technology skills, which creates additional jobs to feed, cloth, and entertain the new residents. While 7.4 million people were looking for work in November 2016 (latest available), there were 5.5 million unfilled vacancies. If you like data: 5.1 million were hired in October while 4.9 million left their jobs for a net increase in employment of 0.225 million. Of those leaving their jobs 0.372 retired or died.

In short, the economy does not lack jobs and the number of jobs is growing at about the rate of growth of the working age population. If the government increases employment for infrastructure projects, those workers must be attracted away from their existing jobs, which will require higher wages. Increasing employment at much faster rates would be inflationary. Higher inflation would undermine the real value of excessive nominal wage increases.

The problem—issue or challenge—is that the new jobs offered often require skills that do not match those of the workers looking for work. Most layoffs and discharges result from automation and other productivity improvements (not from trade), which increases the wages offered for the new jobs needed as a result. This process—increased worker productivity—is the source of per capita income growth, i.e. of our increasing standard of living. However, the benefits of increased productivity will only be broadly shared if workers are trained (or retrained) in the new jobs needed. In addition, the increased income inequality in the U.S. since the 1970s is largely the result of increased rent seeking from government as government regulations have expanded to protect the established companies from outside competition.

Faster income growth, therefore, will depend on improving productivity and its rate of growth over time (not creating more jobs). Improved and simplified regulations will free up some of the large armies of compliance officers to work in jobs that actually produce things we want. It will also increase market competition by reducing regulatory capture and related rent seeking. The same is true for any reforms in the provision of medical services that lower their cost (e.g. from greater transparency of costs of treatment options and patient responsibility for and interest in those costs). This is a different issue than who pays for medical care (insurance) but the nature and structure of medical insurance profoundly influences the incentives patients and doctors have to choose cost effective medical services. Tax reforms that lower the cost of investing in the U.S. will also increase productivity and income growth.

Investments in plant and equipment and new technology increase labor productivity and income in the future but require workers and materials to build them in the present. In an already more or less fully employed economy the resources used for investments must come from giving up other uses, primarily from producing consumption goods and services. To finance investment people will need to consume less and save more.

If none of the resources and their financing come from the government (and Trump plans the opposite), interest rates will need to rise in order to encourage more savings and to moderate the increase in investment. The Federal Reserve will have to raise its interest rate targets just to stay neutral (i.e. to keep inflation rates near their 2% per year target) as the tightening labor market puts upward pressure on wages and equilibrium interest rates. Thus interest rates will need to increase even more to encourage the additional savings needed to finance additional investment.

The new government has yet to propose its budget for the coming year, but Trump cannot simultaneously increase military spending and infrastructure spending and leave entitlement commitments unchanged (which imply significant increases in actual social security and medical outlays because of an ageing population and increased retirements relative to new entrants into the labor force) even if his tax reforms are revenue neutral (which current proposals are not). We don’t know yet which of his plans will have to give and to what extent. None of this takes into account the large impact not so far down the road of unfunded fiscal liabilities (unfunded social security, Medicare, and Medicaid obligations). Thus it is difficult to forecast how much interest rates will need to rise in order to keep inflation in check while crowding out private investment to finance the growing public debt.

Higher interest rates will also tend to strengthen (appreciate) the dollars’ exchange rate, which will increase our trade deficit unless Trump totally destroys our trade flows in a misguided effort to balance our trade account (balance imports and exports). A larger trade deficit would result in some of the increased investment being financed by foreign saving (capital inflow) and to that extent would reduce the upward pressure on interest rates. So far I have not taken account of possible changes in the economic conditions of the rest of the world. However, an appreciated dollar would improve the exports and thus economic activity of other trading partners but would increase their local currency cost of any borrowing their firms and citizens have done in dollars.

The bottom line is that any increase in economic growth in our fully employed economy will come from increases in productivity not increases in employment. Tax and regulatory reform should improve the allocation of our labor and capital resources to more productive uses. They should also lead to increased investment, which will enhance future productivity. Jawboning or pressuring the allocation of these resources into less productive uses (e.g. domestic production of goods that could be more cheaply imported) will reduce economic growth. Increased investment will require higher interest rates in order to generate the savings needed (reduction in consumption) to finance the additional investment. However, continued fiscal deficits will divert that amount of savings away from investment. Without significant cuts in future entitlement commitments (and/or defense spending) these deficits will grow larger at the expense of economic growth. New trade tariffs threatened by Trump or other new impediments to trade will also reduce our productivity and growth. While the Trump administration could increase our economic growth rate in the coming years, this outcome depends on it resolving existing internal contradictions in its proposed policies.

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