Protection from terrorists

My heart goes out to those in London who died at the hands of the British born citizen, Adrian Russell Elms, now going by the name of Khalid Masood. May Keith Palmer, Leslie Rhodes, Kurt Cochran, and Aysha Frade rest in peace. Whether he was a terrorist or a mentally disturbed citizen, he inflicted terror. How should we react?

Like health care reform, some topics never seem to go away. Indeed, striking the right balance between freedom and security is and should be under constant review. However, some approaches should be rejected out of hand. Trump’s travel ban would not have helped (hopefully it will never be implemented). In fact, his disgraceful gesture is a political stunt that does harm if anything at all. His rumored ban on carrying laptops and tablets in the cabins of flights from ten Middle Eastern and North African (predominantly Muslim) cities, while the same items may be checked and thus carried in the hull of the same plane is incomprehensible (other than as a protectionist measure, as only non American carriers fly from these cities). Beyond jeopardizing the cooperation we need from these countries to more effectively combat terrorism, these two measures are hurting our tourism and “jobs in America.”

Reasonable measures should be taken to detect and deter organized terrorist undertakings, without undermining our privacy and freedom of movement. But most attacks since 9/11 have been by lone wolves who didn’t have any actual contact with terrorist organizations. Anyone can decide to drive their car or truck into a crowd as was done in France, Germany and now England. No one in their right mind would suggest extending a travel ban to all road travel in the U.S. as a way of keeping us safe. U.S. traffic deaths have fallen significantly from 54,589 in 1972 to 35,092 in 2015 but dramatically exceed any from terrorists. With the advent and wide spread use of driverless cars such deaths will plummet dramatically in the future. But we accept that risk and drive anyway. No sane person would propose keeping every one home as a safety measure. In any event over 25,000 people die from accidents in their home in the U.S. every year. “Our risks from terrorists”

A full, rich life entails taking calculated risks. It is prudent to limit risks were the cost of doing so is not excessive in terms of our freedom of movement and quality of life. We need to keep this in mind when considering the measures we want our government to take to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.

A related but different issue is how best to defeat ISIS, al-Qaida and the like. During his presidential campaign Trump stated that: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” “Trump on terrorists families.” Such an approach does not accord with the lessons of experience (aside from being repulsive and violating international law). Combating terrorist groups requires cooperation from the countries in which they operate and from the people in whose neighborhoods they live, etc. The International Crisis Group has distilled these lessons in the following report. From its executive summary they state that Trump’s “administration… should be careful when fighting jihadists not to play into their hands. The risks include angering local populations whose support is critical, picking untimely or counter-productive fights and neglecting the vital role diplomacy and foreign aid must play in national security policy. Most importantly, aggressive counter-terrorism operations should not inadvertently fuel other conflicts and deepen the disorder that both ISIS and al-Qaeda exploit.” “Counter-terrorism pitfalls-what US fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda should avoid”

 

 

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Health Care in America

It is hard to get our arms around the issues raised by health care in America. Indeed, President Trump was telling the truth (for a change) when he said that health care “is so complicated.” There are a lot of trees in that forest, and each one matters, but it is helpful to see the forest first, which is my modest objective for this note.

Cost

Americans spend twice as much on average for healthcare as do Europeans and with poorer results. To take one example, the U.S. has an infant mortality rate of 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births while in South Korea it is 3.0. How the delivery of medical services is paid for is a critically important part of why healthcare is so expensive in the U.S., but it is not the only factor. Most health services in the U.S. are provided by the private sector. Government and professional regulations and restriction on how these services may be delivered play a very important role in their cost.

These regulations govern the extent to which technology and medical experts with less training than MDs (e.g. nurse practitioners) may be used to provide routine medical advice. The use of computer diagnostics, either to assist MDs or directly accessed via the Internet by patients; phone consultations, assisted by Internet delivered medical metrics; and nurses for routine medical treatment, will significantly reduce costs while improving the average quality of service. Some of this is already happening, but the American Medical Association, the union for doctors, like most unions, has historically “protected” the incomes of doctors by restricting completion in providing their services. In this instance, I believe that technology, when allowed will make a major contribution.

Improved transparency with regard to the cost of alternative treatments would help reduce the shocking disparity between the costs of the same treatment from different providers. How medical services are financed (the subject of the next section) profoundly influences whether patients care about and monitor costs and what doctors provide and charge for.

Financing

The provision of health care services in the U.S. can be divided into five categories – five separate systems. Data reported here is for 2014 as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p60-253.pdf

U.S. military veterans receive care through the Veteran’s Administration. The VA program covers 14.1 million people or 4.5 percent of the population. The VA health service is a single payer (government), government run program, which is regularly condemned for its poor service and corruption.

Medicaid and Medicare are single payer (government) programs for the poor (Medicaid) and the elderly (Medicare) that finance privately provided medical services. The single payer, the government, sets the service standards and their costs for the health services financed by these programs, but they are delivered by the private sector, though the government determines which doctors may participate and thus must be used by the program’s beneficiaries.

In 2014 Medicaid covered 62 million people or 19.5% of the population and currently covers 68 million. Quoting from government websites: “Medicaid is an assistance program” (i.e. not insurance). “It serves low-income people of every age. Patients usually pay no part of costs for covered medical expenses. A small co-payment is sometimes required. Medicaid is a federal-state program. It varies from state to state. It is run by state and local governments within federal guidelines…. In all states, Medicaid provides health coverage for some low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities. In some states the program covers all low-income adults below a certain income level.”

In 2014 Medicare covered 50.5 million people or 16% of the population, a number that is growing rapidly as the U.S. population ages. “Medicare is an insurance program. Medical bills are paid from trust funds that those covered have paid into. It serves people over 65 primarily, whatever their income; and serves younger disabled people and dialysis patients. Patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Medicare is a federal program. It is basically the same everywhere in the United States and is run by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, an agency of the federal government.” This program seems broadly to have been operating satisfactorily. Hence the often-heard demands from older Republicans of “don’t touch my Medicare.”

In addition, 208.6 million people or 66% of the population had private health insurance plans in 2014. Of these, most (175 million or 55%) had insurance plans offered by their employers. The rest (47 million) bought their health insurance directly. Employer provided plans are subsidized because their premium payments are not taxed as part of an employee’s remuneration while the income from which people buying their own policies pay their premiums is taxed (including the amount they spend on insurance). This has created several serious problems.

Employee provided insurance policies are not portable, i.e. when a worker leaves that employer (fired, resigned, or retired) she cannot take the policy with her. This creates the preexisting condition problem. But first a time out for a quick look at the nature of insurance.

Insurance is a mechanism by which a group of people (the insurance pool) shares the costs of expenses (heart operation, car repair from an accident, home repair from a fire, etc.) that are expected to fall only on a few of them. Those who are lucky enough not to incur such costs help pay for those not so lucky. The group as a whole pays the entire cost of what ever was insured, but the lucky help out the unlucky. This means that the over all aggregate cost, and thus each person’s share of it, depends on who is in the insurance pool. If the pool is the entire population of a country, city, or company, then (if we are discussing health insurance) there will be more healthy people than unhealthy and the average insurance cost per person will be lower than if only unhealthy people are in the pool. Any one who knows that he will not get sick or have an accident (and who doesn’t care about sharing the cost of the less fortunate) would have no reason to join the pool and buy insurance. But of course no one can know that for sure.

If in the course of your employment you acquire or learn that you have a liver disease, the costs of your treatment will be covered by your company insurance plan. But if you change jobs and must take out a new insurance policy with your new employer (or as self employed) your condition will be known in advance and no insurance company would want to insure you at their normal group rates knowing that they would lose money by adding you. This is the origin of the pre existing condition problem. Anyone who acquires an insurance policy in his or her youth and is able to keep it continuously will not face a preexisting condition problem.

At the end of 2014, 33 million people (10.4 percent of the population) were uninsured. This dropped to 27 million people at the end of 2017. The Congressional Budget Office expects that number to rise modestly under Obamacare to 28 million by 2026. This group on average receives less medical care and relies more on emergency room services.

Two major objectives of Obamacare were: a) to forbid insurance companies from denying policies to people with preexisting medical conditions or to charge them more for coverage, and b) to reduce the number of uninsured in part to increase the size of the insurance pool with more healthy members to help cover the costs of the unhealthy. It also expanded eligibility to Medicaid to all able-bodied adults below 138 percent of the federal poverty level and initially covers 95% of the cost to each state for its expansion of enrollees.

To encourage the uninsured (those not eligible for Medicaid choosing not to have insurance) to join the insurance pool, thus helping to pay for the sick, Obamacare subsidizes the premiums of policies purchased on health insurance exchanges established under Obamacare in most states for anyone whose income is less than 400% of the federal poverty level. However, the number those uninsured that have acquired health insurance under Obamacare has fallen short of expectations. Those who have signed up have often had preexisting medical problems. As a result the cost of insurance acquired on these exchanges has risen more than expected. The rising cost of insurance is discouraging more people from acquiring it, a phenomenon referred to as a “death spiral.”

American Health Care Act

The House GOP’s American Health Care Act (AHCA) proposal to “replace” the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) tweaks many of the costs and subsidies in Obamacare in an effort to improve the structure of incentives for cost effective care but this would take us from the forest to some of its individual trees.

The GOP proposal would eliminate Obamacare’s penalty for those choosing not to insure and allow people to keep their policies (portability) when they change jobs or become unemployed. If there is a gap in coverage, a person would have to pay a one time penalty over standard insurance rates of 30%. Republican leadership argues that these incentives are sufficient to encourage more people to get and retain health insurance thus solving the prior condition problem and provide for a large enough pool of insured to keep premiums down.

The assessment of the Congressional Budget Office, on the other hand is “that 24 million fewer people would have coverage a decade from now than if the Affordable Care Act remains intact.” Obamacare-revision-would-reduce-insured-numbers-by-24-million/2017/03/13/. The Washington Post titled their report on the CBO’s findings “Affordable Care Act revision would reduce insured numbers by 24 million, CBO projects”. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that the GOP proposal would take away or eliminate coverage by that amount, when in fact the CBO estimate reflects their expectation of the number of people who would choose not to insure given the terms proposed by the Republicans. The Wall Street Journal gave a more balanced headline to its report on the CBO assessment: “CBO Sees 24 Million More Uninsured, $337 Billion Deficit Cut With GOP Plan”

Whenever costly services are provided free of charge, they are not allocated and rationed by price. In place of market price allocation, the mechanism by which almost everything else in a free market is allocated, services provided “free” must be allocated and rationed by regulations. Whoever pays for the medical care received determines the care options chosen and thus has a major impact on its cost. Currently for most people (other than the poor and elderly who qualify for Medicaid and Medicare) the payer is the insurance policy they chose plus the copay that it requires. For a single payer insurance program such as Medicaid and Medicare, the payer is largely the government, which determines by regulation the quality, choice and cost of service. Democrats generally favor a single payer approach and the government regulation of the health service industry that that would require, while Republicans generally favor government financing only for the poor and disabled (safety net) and reliance on greater individual choice in a more competitive market for both insurance and medical care. This reflects the more general preference by Democrats for government regulation of products, services and markets and by Republicans for primary reliance on individual consumer choice.

An alternative Approach

In my opinion, the public policy goal for the provision of health care should be to provide satisfactory care to those who cannot afford it (the poor) in a cost effective manner, to provide everyone else with as much choice as possible and the information that would be helpful in making such choices, and to open medical practice to as much flexibility and competition as possible. The tax proposals I have made earlier would lay the best foundation on which to build such policies: My political platform for the nation-2017.  I would replace all business and personal income taxes and payroll taxes with a flat consumption tax (Value Added Tax—VAT) and introduce a per person minimum guaranteed income (tax credit) that varies with age but not income and is sufficient for a minimum level of healthy existence. US federal tax policy, Cayman Financial Review July 2009 A mandatory health savings account contribution (in place of Medicaid and Medicare and any other insurance subsidies) and a mandatory retirement account contribution (in place of Social Security) would be made from the monthly minimum guaranteed income payments in amounts sufficient for satisfactory health care insurance and retirement. Saving social security. The administrative requirements for such a simple system would be minimal.

I do not wish to suggest for a second that providing everyone with a satisfactory guaranteed minimum income will deliver the good life to everyone. In fact, most people are not happy—do not feel fulfilled and whole—without a decent job. Most people want to work. The recent spike in suicides and opiate overdose deaths seems related to the idleness of those who have given up looking for work. Nicholas N. Eberstadt points out that:

“According to [Alan Krueger’s] work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis…. But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap…. One main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program.

“By the way: Of the entire un-working prime-age male Anglo population in 2013, nearly three-fifths (57 percent) were reportedly collecting disability benefits from one or more government disability program in 2013. Disability checks and means-tested benefits cannot support a lavish lifestyle. But they can offer a permanent alternative to paid employment, and for growing numbers of American men, they do. The rise of these programs has coincided with the death of work for larger and larger numbers of American men not yet of retirement age. We cannot say that these programs caused the death of work for millions upon millions of younger men: What is incontrovertible, however, is that they have financed it—just as Medicaid inadvertently helped finance America’s immense and increasing appetite for opioids in our new century.” Commentary Magazine, Our miserable 21st century February 15, 2017.

Getting the incentives in government assistance programs right is difficult. But better jobs are needed as well. The government’s stifling regulations of too many aspects of the private economy have reduced investment and growth in productivity (the basis of increases in our standard of living) to a crawl. The medical care industry is only one of many in which a better balance between government and market regulation of economic activity and smarter policies with better structured incentives for those making decisions are badly needed.

Post Script

PS: The Republican leadership has chosen to put forth its American Health Care Act (AHCA) in the form of a budget “reconciliation” bill. This allows its adoption by simple majority rather than the usual 60% majority, but it limits the scope of the act to what might be considered budgetary aspects. This is behind the rush and the limited range of changes that are possible for the AHCA. There are pros and cons to such a process, which was also followed for Obamacare.

The advantages are that the bill can be passed with a lower level of congressional support and that the sectors of the economy adversely effected (a bill that changes anything will necessarily have winners and losers) will have less time to mount a fight to save or promote their special interests. The disadvantages are that the potential to improve the bill by hearing and considering all views will be limited and that the opportunity to build broad support via compromises will be missed. In my opinion such important and fundamental legislation should obtain broad support. The failure to do so was one of the flaws of Obamacare.

PPS. When new rules change the outcomes for some, fairness dictates an as painless as possible transition from the existing rules to the new ones. Some of the debate among House Republicans concerns transition issues, such as from current Federal financing of state expansions of Medicaid coverage to Federal block grants meant to give states more flexibility in how they use these funds.

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How People Become Terrorists

Yesterday I attended a fascinating lecture by Marc Sageman on his latest book: Misunderstanding Terrorism. You can watch it here: How-people-become-terrorists

Though greatly oversimplified, the essence of his findings, which included direct interviews of over 30 captured terrorists, is that members attracted to a close net group with a shared concern and thus shared identity and common cause can for various reasons rise to terrorism when they think their issue is not receiving a fair hearing. He does not consider the ultra conservative interpretation of Islam espoused by ISIS to be a very important factor in attracting its “soldiers.” Perhaps this is why National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster urged Trump not to use the label “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech to congress saying that it was not helpful. McMaster-trump-terrorism-speech

America’s best defense against ISIS and other terrorist producing groups is to adhere to the values that have made American so respected and admired around the world. These include the evenhanded application of the rule of law.

While listening to Dr. Sageman’s presentation I was reminded of the University of California’s handling of the Free Speech Movement in 1964-5. The FSM was formed in the fall of 1964 after the University banned the traditional sidewalk tables on the edge of the Berkeley campus from which student organizations recruited members and/or passed out their literature. I was a member of the FSM council, as were the presidents of virtually all recognized campus organizations, in my capacity as President of the University Conservatives. The council’s purpose was to get the Berkeley administration to lift its ban and restore free speech on campus (a different time indeed).

As the daily meetings of the FSM council droned on, the group began to informally split between those pushing for more and more forceful demonstrations (which led eventually to the student take over and sit in of Sproul Hall, the administration building) and those of us favoring discussions with the Administration. As the FSM council became increasingly more radical, more moderate groups began to drop out and five of us (the Presidents of Young Republics, Young Democrats, University Conservatives, Young Peoples Socialist League, and Democratic Socialists) began meeting separately in the middle of the night to agree on a strategy for approaching the Administration. We met in the office of Professor Seymour Martin Lipset because the YPSL President was his research assistant and had the key. In this we succeeded but not until Bettina Aptheker and the Marxist group led students into Sproul Hall where they “sat in” for the next few days until they were carted off by the police. Sadly, Joan Baez, who had performed on the steps of Sproul Hall (from which Mario Savio and I and others addressed the daily crowds) every Friday, and whose music I love, led the students into the building singing “We shall overcome” (though she stopped outside the door herself). It was an unforgettable experience with protest movements and crowd dynamics.

President Trump has taken the opposite approach to our terrorist threat. Rather than honestly debating whether Muslims or any other identifiable group are unfairly treated in America (of course some are occasionally, but not as the result of an official discriminatory policy), and/or our purpose and conduct in occupying Iraq, Trump has pretended that the threat comes from abroad and has tried to make it even harder for foreigners to visit. In the process he has given an ugly tone to our discussions of real issues and concerns. Trumps-foreign-policy-and-Mexico

Trump’s poorly conceived, poorly drafted, and poorly executed Executive Order temporarily banning entry of people from seven Muslim majority countries fits Dr. Sageman’s description of how to promote terrorism. Tears-and-detention-for-us-visitors-as-trump-travel-ban-hits. In the past few weeks, our charming and welcoming airport immigration officials have detained some unusual travelers.

American born citizen Sidd Bikkannavar, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab with Global Entry, was detained in Houston on his return from Chile and pressured to give over the pin access number to his phone, which had been issued by his employer and contained sensitive material. Indian-origin-nasa-scientist-detained-at-us-border-phone-confiscated

French historian Henry Rousso, a pre-eminent scholar on the Holocaust, was also held at the Houston airport. “When the immigration officer discovered he would be receiving a fee for his keynote address at Texas A&M University, he ordered him to be deported, claiming he should have a working visa rather than a tourist visa.” French-historian-Henry-Rousso-detained 10-hours.

The celebrated Australian children’s writer, Mem Fox, was detained at LAX and wrote that “In that moment I loathed America.” In-that-moment-I-loathed-America-I-loathed-the-entire-country.

The detention for several hours of Mohammad Ali’s son on his way home from a speech in Jamaica because he is a Muslim is one of the more outrageous examples of what is happening. Muhammad-Ali-son-detained-Fort-Lauderdale-airport

These short sighted and ugly measures are not making us safer, quite the opposite:

Former-CIA-chief-says trumps-travel-ban-hurts-American security

In response to stricter requirements for European travel to the U.S., the European Commission is considering whether to suspend visa free travel to Europe for Americans. Did we really think we could do it to them without them wanting to do it to us? Where are the adults?

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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]

Posted in News and politics, trade | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Debt, Government, News and politics, trade | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments