A Big Lack of Trust.

            The rise of big business hotly followed the Civil War.  Railroads, coal mines, steel mills, oil, telegraphs, and banks all grew in size and wealth as America industrialized.  Big companies integrated horizontally and vertically.  They formed ‘trusts” to cut up the national market and set prices without reference to market forces.  Companies played a rough game with each other, with their workers, and with their customers.[1]  The aggrieved fought back in a variety of ways, none of them very effective.  State regulation of railroads, national anti-trust legislation, and guns and dynamite made headlines without braking the advance of big business. 

            Louis Brandeis, lawyer and then Justice of the Supreme Court, advanced a compelling theory of anti-bigness.[2]  Brandies argued that there could be neither competition nor bargaining in sectors where one actor dominated the market for goods, services, or employment.  Moreover, a dominant company—well the handful of men who owned or controlled it–could impose its will in other areas thanks to the wealth it accumulated.[3]  His views came to dominate legal and government approaches to the growth of big business from the New Deal to the Eighties. 

            If a criticism might be offered, it is that the approach is subjective, moralistic, and essentially aesthetic.  It didn’t try to measure whether customers were economically better or worse off from any particular size of or market domination by a company.  It believed that competition should not be carried to its logical conclusion, victory for one competitor.  It could cite many instances of bad behavior by companies without demonstrating the representatives of those anecdotes.  Fundamentally, it reflected a view that, when pushed too far, inequalities of wealth and power are unseemly. 

            This view finally sparked an effective response in the Reagan Era.  In 1978, Yale law professor Robert Bork published The Antitrust Paradox.  The “paradox” identified by Bork lay in the raising of consumer prices and the limiting of competition through anti-trust laws that effectively protected established competitors.  Bork argued that “consumer welfare” should be the standard for deciding whether some merger should be allowed.  The price and variety of goods offered to the consumer could be measured objectively.  Bork’s view gained dominance in the courts. 

            If a criticism of this approach might be offered, it is that it views humans too narrowly.  How much stuff people can buy and at what price isn’t the only measure of human happiness or welfare.  For example, trust in the larger social, political, and economic systems to give people what they believe to be a fair shake in life also is essential.  That confidence often is based in emotion and intuition, rather than cold logic.  It is subject to manipulation.[4]  It’s real.  It’s vital. 

            Now a new phase in anti-trust has opened.  The current approach has been labeled “neo-Brandesian.”  Its face is Lina Khan, the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission. 


[1] See Glenn Porter, The Rise of Big Business, 1860-1920 (1992) for a concise summary of the scholarly literature.  See Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953) for a mid-century popular evaluation: “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks…. Somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut out from under them… Decent people lost their jobs…. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.” 

[2] Greg Ip, “Latest Antitrust Approach Has Its Own Risks,” WSJ, 8 July 2021. 

[3] It’s probably hard to regulate anything effectively when one party can hire all the best lawyers. 

[4] American media is the last great industry largely free from government regulation.  Long may it so remain. 

What is not said.

            Wealth and income inequality have become a much-discussed issue in American politics.  Democrats emphasize the injustice and aesthetics of recent income and wealth inequality.  Narrowing that gap has become a primary concern for many Democrats.  One way to achieve this is to increase what Europeans call “social provision” of services and money to lower income groups.  The “human infrastructure” component of their plans call for government spending on child-care, universal pre-K, free community college, and expanded spending on health-care.  Once created, such entitlements do not go away.  They only expand. 

A second way is to substantially raise taxes on both the income and the underlying assets of the wealthy.  The maximalist version of the current infrastructure bill nicely illustrates this double policy.  As one New York Times reporter puts it: they “see a rare opportunity to harness the political popularity of infrastructure spending to achieve their long held policy of raising taxes on the rich.”  Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), chairman of the Finance Committee, puts it succinctly: “What we’re doing is generating revenue, but we are also making a major area of American government more fair, so people don’t feel they’ve been played while the rich person gets off scot-free.”[1]  In sum, the Democrats have long desired to tax the rich and they think that they have finally found a winning justification. 

The tax proposals chiefly target corporations, the fossil fuels industry, and wealthy individuals.  First, the tax on corporations would rise from the current 21 percent, the “small business” tax break for certain partnerships and limited liability companies (LLCs) would end, and so would a provision that taxes the fees of private equity firms as capital gain rather than as income.  The tax breaks currently allowed to fossil fuel companies would be redirected to benefit “clean energy” companies.  The top tax rate on individuals would rise from 37 percent to 39.6 percent, and the tax on capital gains for those earning more than $1 million a year would rise from 20 percent to 39.6 percent.  It is hoped that such measures would generate $2.5 trillion in revenue over ten years. 

One thing that is not discussed is alternative uses for the increased tax revenue.  Over the last 20 years, the real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States has slightly more than doubled.[2]  Over the same period, the national debt has risen from about $6 trillion to about $27 trillion.[3]  That is, it has more than quadrupled.  From 2016 to 2020, the national debt increased from 106.6 percent of GDP to 127 percent of GDP.  This has taken place in an environment of near-zero interest rates.  If interest rates had to rise to counter either a serious inflationary surge or speculative bubbles, then the cost of that debt would rise as a share of the budget. 

Suggesting that the increased revenue go to reducing the debt to a more manageable size would be met with hoots of derision.  No one is going to want to pay for benefits that their predecessors received, but for which they refused to pay.  Herein lies the lesson. 


[1] Both quotes are from Jonathan Weisman, “Bipartisan Infrastructure Talks Collide With Democrats’ Goal to Tax Rich,” NYT, 21 June 2021.  Conservatives would contest the “scot-free” designation.  In their view, the top 10 percent of income earners paid 71,7 percent of federal income tax on adjusted gross income, while the bottom 50 percent of income earners paid 2.94 percent of the federal income tax on adjusted gross income.  See “Letters to the Editor,” WSJ, 26-27 June 2021.  As my beloved sister-in-law said when asked to define “fair”: “more, a lot more.” 

[2] See: https://www.statista.com/statistics/188105/annual-gdp-of-the-united-states-since-1990/ 

[3] See: https://fiscaldata.treasury.gov/datasets/historical-debt-outstanding/historical-debt-outstanding

Too Much of A Good Thing.

            The Great Depression (1929-1939) rocked capitalism.  Conventional economic thought offered no useful response.  Indeed, following its dictates only made things worse.  It held that governments should not intervene excessively in the natural workings of the capitalist economy.  However, if the “natural workings” of the capitalist economy puts 25 percent of the labor force out of work for a long stretch, then something new needs to be done.  Some countries—the United States, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan–fumbled towards an effective solution.  Government deficit spending would have to fill up the gap between what the economy wanted to produce and what it needed to produce to maintain employment and living standards.  This actually worked, especially under the conditions of total war.[1] 

            It took a while, but after the Second World War these ideas were legitimized as more than just ad-hoc emergency measures.  Labeled “Keynesianism,” the legitimized government interventions, especially deficit spending, as a response to serious downturns in the business cycle.  Along with expanded provision of government services, the new approach seemed to be validated by the “Great Boom” of the post-war decades.  Health, education, and living standards all improved markedly during this time.  British Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan crowed that “most of our people have never had it so good.” 

            Inevitably, a fly lit in the ointment.  The fly took the form of consequences that were unintended, unanticipated, and frankly undesired.[2]  Success at dealing with major down-turns tempted democratic political systems to apply the solution to less grave down-turns and then to enhancing up-turns.[3]  This seemed to reflect the invalidation of yet another old nostrum: that deficits financed by just printing money eventually undermine confidence in the currency, eventually stoke inflation to unacceptable levels, and eventually force central banks to raise interest rates.  “Eventually” never put in an appearance, so governments began to get the idea that free money actually is free.[4] 

            Now—or maybe “again” would be more accurate—storm flags are going up.[5]  A “perfect storm” in a rare one that combines several meteorological events.[6]         Cassandras discern something similar developing in economic policies. 

First, printing money raises asset values (stocks and bonds, houses).[7]  That’s great, except that just under half of Americans own no stocks and bonds, and ownership of most stocks and bonds is highly concentrated.[8]  Although much played up by the left, economic inequality really has risen dramatically.  That threatens to de-legitimize capitalism in the eyes of ordinary citizens. 

Second, easy money and government bail-outs do more than curb the negative effects of a recession or depression.  They also curb the positive effects.  Governments step in rather than allowing “creative destruction” to re-allocate economic resources and rewards.  Inefficient, non-performing firms don’t get driven under.  These “zombie”[9] companies continue to tie down capital and labor that would be better directed to new firms that are more competitive, efficient, and innovative.[10]  The share of “zombies” among publically-traded companies has risen from about 2 percent in 2002 to 19 percent by 2019.  Pouring money into “zombie” firms doesn’t increase production or productivity by any significant amount.  Instead, “creative destruction” lies at the heart of functional capitalism.  So, let her rip. 

Third, easy money and bail-outs are a part (not the whole) of the forces that have created an economy dominated by big companies.  Big firms can borrow the money needed to get bigger still.  They can buy start-ups before they grow into real competitors; they can hoover-up talented workers; and they can hire the armies of lawyers needed to cope with the immense and complicated regulations generated by active governments.  Hug rewards flow toward a company that can achieve market dominance.  Stomping on ants may come to seem preferable to thinking about uncomfortable innovations. 

In essence, capitalism is being smothered by the efforts to shield people from risk and adversity.[11]  In theory, it is not necessary to throw out the original Keynesian baby with the bathwater to solve this problem.  Governments must still save the economy in cases of serious down-turns.  The problems lie, first, in what it does after a crisis and, second, what it does when times are good.  The schoolroom solution is that governments should exercise some self-discipline.  After a crisis they should reel back in the debt they issued to revive the economy.  When times are good, they should refrain from trying to make them even better by printing more money. 

The solution rests on a hope that voters or interest groups will reward politicians who follow this path.  That hope, in turn, rests on a belief in civic virtue and a sense of self-restraint.  Will voters and interest group virtuous and capable of self-restraint?  Or are they habituated to government stimulus?[12]  Maybe it will take a big smash-up to change minds.[13] 

That opens up a discussion about “culture” (values, beliefs, behaviors) that is bound to be difficult.  It would be easy to give into cultural pessimism here.  Still, there’s always been “a lot of ruin in the Republic.” 


[1] On all this, see: Charles P. Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-1939 (1973); and Alan S. Milward, War, Economy, and Society, 1939-1945 (1979). 

[2] See Gregor Samsa. 

[3] In the United States, it isn’t possible to blame only the “tax-spend-elect” Democrats for this.  Purely for electoral reasons, Republicans eventually responded with “tax-cut-spend-elect.”  Their latest tax cut came in 2017, when the recession of 2008 hardly even appeared in the rear-view mirror.    

[4] Two “oil shocks” in the 1970s led to a severe inflation.  After central banks defeated this inflation in the early 1980s, they pushed down interest rates to low levels.  Asian “sovereign wealth funds” soaked up a lot of the US Treasury paper thus generated.  See: Jacques Rueff, The Monetary Sin of the West (1972) for its criticism of the US for inflating the whole world’s economy.  More to the point, Rueff’s views influenced French president Charles de Gaulle to attack the value of the dollar in 1965.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exorbitant_privilege 

[5] Ruchir Sharma, “The Rescues Ruining Capitalism,” WSJ, 25-26 July 2020. 

[6] See: Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (1997). 

[7] After Congress took flight from Keynesianism from 2008 on, the Federal Reserve Bank stepped in with “quantitative easing”: buying privately-owned financial assets to pump up their value. 

[8] Just over half of Americans own some stocks and bonds, but most stocks and bonds are owned by a few people. 

[9] Companies that don’t earn enough profit to pay even the interest on their debts. 

[10] On the very real  problems in Asia, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie_company 

[11] There may be a larger argument to be made about the other unintended effects of the post-war reforms on a broader range of citizens.  For example, Zachary Karabell quotes Alexander Brown, founder of the investment bank Brown Brothers (later Brown Brothers Harriman): “Don’t deal with people about whose character there is a question.  It keeps your mind uneasy.  It is far better to lose the business.”  Karabell, “The Capitalist Culture That Built America,” WSJ, 15-16 May 2021.  Reflecting on some of the comments I have read in my local township Facebook page, I think that you shouldn’t say things that would make Jimmy Stewart or Lee Marvin believe that you should have your mouth washed out with soap. 

[12] A question at the heart of the work of the “Concord Coalition.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concord_Coalition 

[13] William E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (1963). 

The Age of Revolt 1.

            Where did “Trumpism”–the political movement–come from?[1]  It arose out of the profits and losses from globalization.  The costs were born by one segment of American society while the profits flowed to another segment.  The beneficiaries were, first and foremost, the “political, cultural, and financial elite.”  Their right to lead rested upon the pursuit of the common good. 

In theory, the free-trade policies pursued by a whole series of American administrations after the Second World War would benefit Americans.  They would allow the American economy to shift jobs producing low-value goods offshore and to redeploy assets toward higher-value jobs and goods.  For a long time, these policies had no costs for Americans.  The American economy emerged from the war with a long-term competitive advantage over anyone else.  It could have not only butter and guns, but low-end butter and high-end butter.  By the Sixties, that advantage had eroded badly.  As foreign competition began to bite, it turned out that a lot of people depended on those low-value jobs for their living and found it difficult to shift into high-value jobs. 

Globalization began to take a more serious toll on the American working class in the wake of the “Oil Shocks” of 1973 and 1979.[2]  That seems incomprehensibly long ago to most journalists and politicians, so they just ignore the larger story.  Then the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994) reduced tariffs on trade with Mexico and Canada.  It accelerated the early wave of job-losses.  Already in the 1990s, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot could run for president, if not win, on the loss of blue-collar manufacturing jobs.  At the same time, China’s abandonment of suicidal Maoist economic policies and its entry into the World Trade Organization (1990) greatly accelerated the loss of jobs.  Those job losses not only tossed many workers into unemployment, they also left whole communities hollowed out and unable to address human problems.  They not only tossed workers into unemployment, they undermined the value of the homes that formed an important asset of many workers.  They not only tossed workers into unemployment, they also foreclosed the possibility of the children of the workers finding steady work at a living wage anywhere near their parents. 

Globalization may have eroded manufacturing jobs, but it created enormous opportunities for the American financial services industry.  Industrializing countries needed capital and expertise.  Wall Street could provide both, not least because of the inflow of Chinese profits to New York banks and to the swelling 401(k) savings of the Baby Boomers.  Increasingly “cosmopolitan” in its outlook, Wall Street also became increasingly influential over national economic policy.[3] 

The year 2008 marked a turning point.  A great deal of elite foolishness and some guile created the 2008 financial crisis.  That, in turn gave rise to revolts on the right (Tea Party) and left (Occupy Wall Street); and to the invasion of the political system by “outsiders” like Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.  Donald Trump, the ultimate outsider, was just a heart-beat away. 


[1] Gerald F. Seib, “Where Trump Came From—And Where Trumpism Is Going,” WSJ, 16-17 January 2021. 

[2] “In the wake of” does not mean “solely caused by.”   For more of my peculiar view of this process, see https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/03/02/american-union-stay-away-from-me-uh/  and https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/12/17/the-new-economy/

[3] For one highly critical view of this process, see Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup,” The Atlantic, 5 May 2009. 

The Asian Century 17b.

Yet, for historians—if not for political scientists or economists—there is reason for cautious optimism.  On the one hand, the historical record suggests that democracies can be slow to mobilize their strength, but better able to mobilize that strength over the long haul.[1]  If one looks at (or, much worse, had to live through) the period from 1930 to 1942, one could easily believe that the liberal system had shot its bolt.  Economic depression, the collapse of new democracies, the appeasement of authoritarian nations, and military defeat slammed confidence in the Western system.  Three years later Berlin and Tokyo lay in smoking ruins. 

Second, “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”[2]  The recent unpleasantness at the end of the Trump presidency led journalists and public intellectuals to invoke the example of the disputed presidential election of 1876.  Squalid as were those events, they also helped settle a period of deep division within the United States and helped bring on a long period of rising power and prosperity.[3] 

American business may be resistant to government guidance on China policy, but it is resistant to government policy on many things.  Usually, the outcome is satisfactory to most people.  American society is immensely creative and innovative.  The rapid development of two vaccines for Covid 19 demonstrate that old truth.  Conversely, the many problems with distributing the vaccine fall to the responsibility of the state and federal governments.  Hardly cause for business to defer to the state.  During the pandemic, American businesses have moved rapidly ahead with collaboration software (like Zoom), direct delivery bypassing stores, and cloud computing to manage all of it.  Compare this with the PRC’s treatment of Jack Ma, the entrepreneur who created Alibaba and Ant.  He got “disappeared” for a while after he suggested that entrepreneurial innovation outstrips old ideas.  About the subordination of business to the state for example. 

America remains remarkably open to immigration.[4]  Immigration helps off-set the aging of the native-born population, while admitting large numbers of people eager to work and to create their own futures.  In contrast, the PRC oppresses its own people and violates international agreements, like the Anglo-Chinese agreement on Hong Kong, in order to get more people to oppress.  China is not a country of voluntary immigration. 

By any standard, China’s economic progress since the death of Mao has been extraordinary in statistical terms.  However, much of that progress came from moving peasants out of low productivity rural farming and into higher productivity urban manufacturing.  The government has used subsidies, entry into the world market, and massive intellectual property theft to push China so far forward so fast.  There is good reason to wonder if the PRC has reached the limits of what can be obtained by such methods.  Just when they’ve alarmed the US. 


[1] This is a central theme of Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945 (1968).  It remains the best single volume history of the Second World War. 

[2] Adam Smith.  I forget where I read it, but it stuck with me. 

[3] Richard White, the author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (2017), would wish to qualify this view if it ever came to his attention. 

[4] In 2017, 2018, and 2019, an average of 1,085,181 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  In 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, an average of 1,060,401 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  See: https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2019/table1 

The Asian Century 17a.

            It is now commonly accepted that the United States (US) and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) are strategic competitors.[1]  All eyes regard this competition, for they represent two different approaches to government and economic management.[2]  China combines an effective authoritarian government with state-managed semi-capitalism.  The US combines democracy with a regulated free market.  For the duration of the “Fifty Years War”[3] the United States represented the preferred wave of the future for an ever-growing share of the world’s population.  Is the US able to win a new competition or have essential elements of its previous strength dissolved?  Is China better able than were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to win a competition with the US?  It depends where you look. 

Does the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020 offer any insight into the relative positions of the US and the PRC?  The answer must be NO if examined in international perspective.[4]  Democratic Taiwan did better than the PRC; the United Kingdom did even worse than did the US in spite of doing all the things that Democrats criticized the Trump administration for not doing.  The explanation for the diversity of results may have something to do with an Asian culture of compliance with the public interest in comparison with a Western culture of asserting individual rights at the expense of the community. 

It is sad, but true that the Covid pandemic is a transitory event.  It has been deadly and disruptive in its impact, but in a year it will be history.  More fundamental issues should be alarming.  So far, China has won the trade war launched by President Trump.  During 2020 its trade surplus increased, as did the trade deficit of the US.  The Trump administration’s attack on Huawei Technologies led the PRC to pour resources into its semi-conductor industry.  American efforts to get other countries to join in exerting pressure on China signally failed.  European, South American, and Asian countries are so entranced by the promise of the China market that they seek to fill the gaps when other countries try to pressure China.[5]  Nor is American politics oriented toward pursuing a coherent industrial policy during peacetime.  One of Trump’s last acts as President was to see his efforts to encourage an American rival to Huawei come to grief.  Intel announced plans to offshore some of its chip production; while Cisco rejected government entreaties to buy either Nokia or Ericsson.  Here they put the bottom line ahead of national strategy.  One of Biden’s first acts as President was to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.  Here he put the demands of environmentalists over the interests of America’s Canadian ally (and over those of the American construction workers who had been building the pipeline). 

Finally, Chinese news media are portraying the riot at the Capitol as proof that American democracy is crumbling.  Many, here and abroad, would agree with this grim judgement. 


[1] Greg Ip, “China Played Its Hand Well in 2020.  Will It Keep Winning?” WSJ, 23-24 January 2021. 

[2] I’m not sure how Francis Fukuyama makes sense of this development.  Apparently, Hegelianism only takes you so far.  See Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man Standing (1992).  Still, he’s teaching at Chicago and I’m working at an educational wide spot in the road.  So,…

[3] The struggle from 1940 to 1990 between capitalist liberal democracy and autarkic dictatorships. 

[4] See: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases 

[5] For example, the European Union recently concluded an agreement with China to increase investment.  In doing so, they ignored a suggestion from Jake Sullivan, then President Biden’s national security advisor-designate that they should wait. 

My Weekly Reader 7 January 2021.

            The Enlightenment had a good year in 1776.  The year witnessed the publication of “The Declaration of Independence,” Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  Smith attacked the prevailing “mercantilist” economic policies of the time, arguing that tariffs serve only politically-connected special interests at the expense of the larger community. 

            Broadly, for much of their history, Americans rejected free-trade as the best engine of prosperity.[1]  While James Madison advocated a ‘very free system of commerce” in the early days of the Republic, Alexander Hamilton preferred a mercantilist/protectionist line.  Tariff policy veered toward the Hamiltonian line once industrialization began, to the great distress of Southern cotton exporters.  After the Civil War, high tariffs became an article of faith among Republicans.  It is by no means clear that tariffs actually contributed much to American economic development in the “Gilded Age.”  Abundant natural resources combined with a scarcity of labor that put a premium on technological innovation probably did much more than tariffs.  Still, they didn’t hurt.  High tariffs as a protection against “unfair” foreign competition became a totem.[2] 

            Making a totem out of high tariffs came back to bite Republicans when passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930) coincided with the plunge into the Great Depression.  Even though the Federal Reserve’s tight money policy during the 1920s played a far larger role, the high tariffs and falling trade explanation was ready to hand.[3] 

After the Great Depression drove many countries toward high tariff walls and autarky, after the Second World War wrecked most world economies, Republicans and Democrats converged on a new orthodoxy of free trade.  The United States played the leading role in designing the new world order of the Bretton Woods System.[4]  Americans continued this drive through the 1990s, with successive “rounds” of multilateral tariff reductions and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

Some of the economic and social dislocations of recent decades loosened the post-war consensus.  Republicans still clung to free trade as tightly as they once clung to high tariffs, while Democrats lost the enthusiasm for free trade that inspired them from Franklin D. Roosevelt through John F. Kennedy.  More recently, populist uprisings in both parties have disrupted the march toward a still more integrated world economy.  Senator Bernie Sanders attacked free trade in general and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in particular during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.  Rival Hillary Clinton soon moved from being a leading proponent of the TPP to having her doubts to opposing it.  Donald Trump seized the Republican nomination in part by dint of his scalding criticism of NAFTA and Chinese trade practices. 

Will policy now snap back to normal under Joe Biden or are we at the dawn of a new era of managed trade?  The ability to formulate policies that help those displaced may hold the key.         


[1] Douglas A. Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (2017).  Reviewed by George Melloan, WSJ, 29 November 2017. 

[2] Tax cuts as the solution to every problem has become a similar totem for Republicans since the Reagan presidency. 

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic 

[4] The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Marshall Plan and support for European integration all were vital early contributions. 

Looking Forward in December 2020 1.

            The recession of 2020 and beyond did not spring from “normal” causes.[1]  It sprang from the Covid-19 pandemic.  That pandemic continues to ravage the world, so a full recovery cannot begin.    Only widespread vaccination will allow the American economy to recover.  Estimates for that seem to run into mid-Summer 2021.[2]  An optimist might guess-timate that the economy will have fully recovered by the end of 2021. 

            The federal policy response to the Covid-triggered economic crisis[3] has been far more robust than the response to the 2009 financial crisis that led to the “Great Recession.”  Including the bill just signed—finally–by President Trump, the government spent more as a share of GDP over two years than the previous administration spent over five.  This may have contributed to avoiding the steep plunge in spending by states that helped deepen the crisis of a decade ago.  All this means that the economy did not sink into as deep peril as was the case ten years ago. 

Then, there are reasons to hope that the economy can make a sustained recovery.  The Federal Reserve Bank has promised to not raise interest rates until annual inflation hits two percent and all the Covid-caused unemployment has been absorbed.  This recession may not have done as much long-term damage as normal recessions.  Bankruptcies haven’t shot up the way one would expect, although they may still rise.  If many businesses are “only mostly dead,”[4] many could spring back.  If they do, then they will bring back employees while reviving pre-recession relationships with suppliers and customers.  A long drawn-out recovery is not fated. 

With a third of a million Americans dead from Covid-19 so far, it may seem petty to turn to the political effects.  Yet both parties are struggling to define their course in an environment without the disruptive factors of Donald Trump and Covid-19.  The outcome of these struggles will influence the direction of American society in the immediate future.  Would a rapid recovery dampen enthusiasm for any sweeping changes in economic organization or the role of government?  Would business people claim that they had “Built Back” during the recovery largely on their own?  Would it be difficult to blame anyone, other than the virus, for the recession?  Would Republicans want to fend off all calls for assistance to the “front-line” and “essential” workers once the crisis has passed, even if they try to restrict the scope of such definitions that President Biden would propose?  It is shaping up to look like at least two more years of tweaks to legislation.  Most of the action will come in nibbling rule-writing rather than in big new laws. 


[1] Greg Ip, “2021 Could Be (a Lot) Better Than You Think,” WSJ, 24 December 2020.  On Ip, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Ip 

[2] See, for example, the chart on the front page of the WSJ, 12-13 December 2020.  However, that leaves aside places in the world where vaccination will take place later.  Will Egypt ever get around to vaccinating any but the elite? 

[3] This is different from the federal response to the health emergency itself.  Operation “Warp Speed” appears to have done an astonishing job of creating and now distributing the vaccines that offer the only real long-term solution.  No one would—or should—forgive President Trump for his relentless down-playing of the immediate dangers or his undermining of scientific opinion on short-term safety measures.  He had the chance to be seen as a great president  He muffed it 

[4] See the classic exposition of the distinction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbE8E1ez97M 

The Asian Century 14.

            The way it looks at the moment, the foreseeable future will be dominated by tiny things: deadly viruses and ultra-thin semi-conductors.  Controlling both holds the key to leadership (and possibly survival) in the Twenty-First Century.  Both come from Asia.  Of the two, computer chips may be the more pressing long-term concern.[1] 

            Inevitably, this begins as History.  The West pioneered industrialization, then moved up the ladder from making simple things to making more complicated and higher-value things.  From this they drew immense wealth.  Wealth converts into military power.  From the late Eighteenth Century onward, the West both shot ahead of the rest of the world and began to impose its rule on the rest of the world.[2] 

            Since the Second World War, many countries have wanted to follow the Western path.  For most of the imitators it meant beginning where the West had begun, with simple mass-produced goods that the West no longer cared to produce.  Textiles, then simple electronics, then motorbikes and automobiles.  They were filling global needs without competing head to head with the established economies. 

            Two countries—South Korea and Taiwan—went farther than making textiles, steel, and ships.  Taiwan’s strategy: invest heavily in research and development; build human capital through education and hold that capital in Taiwan; push rapid adaptation to changing markets in the West; encourage new businesses, rather than guard the established giants; and don’t put the hackles up on key Western manufacturers. 

            One of those start-ups was the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).  The Taiwanese government chose Morris Chang, an American-educated Taiwanese, to begin creating a semi-conductor industry.  They didn’t set him to jumping too far by building an industry to use those chips in things like smartphones.  They set him to building the essential component of such devices.  He succeeded, but–true to the Taiwanese form—he didn’t rest on his laurels.  TSMC kept pushing up the ladder to chips until it became the leading producer of high-end semi-conductors.  What it did not do was to branch out into making the devices produced by powerful companies like Apple.  Both American and Chinese device manufacturers came to rely on abundant supplies of TSMC chips. 

            Now TSMC and Taiwan are becoming important “chips” in a different game.  The Trump Administration broke with previous American policy by taking seriously the profound Chinese-American rivalry.  Tariffs formed one part of its campaign, but so did a campaign to block the expansion outside China of the Huawei Company.  The American campaign against Huawei aimed, in part, to block the Chinese company’s access to TSMC chips.  The Trump Administration also encouraged TSMC to build a chip plant in the United States. 

            IF artificial intelligence and high-speed computing are going to be two corner stones of economic power and national prosperity, then high-end chips are an essential interest of both China and the United States.  Will the complicated Sino-American relationship on this issue and on so many others be resolved by diplomacy? 


[1] Ruchir Sharma, “It All Comes Down to Taiwan,” NYT, 15 December 2020. 

[2] David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Innovation and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969). 

Climate of Fear XXII.

            The Paris Climate Accords, which the Obama administration helped negotiate in 2016, contained flaws as well as virtues.[1]  The virtues have been sufficiently broadcast, so it is worth looking at two flaws. 

First, the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions promised by other countries were purely voluntary.  No one except Morocco and Gambia has met their commitments.  This lack of enthusiasm about compliance with even voluntary targets provides ammunition to critics of the Accords.  If the threat is real, it could be argued, then counties would drive ahead regardless of American participation.  If the threat isn’t real, then is the climate crisis being over-hyped?  Is the United States being beset by a warming planet or by a combination of ivory tower zealots with rival foreign economies seeking a competitive advantage?[2] 

            Second, it is not a treaty.  It is an executive agreement.  Never ratified by the Senate, it never became legally binding on the United States.  Furthermore, it could be—and was—abandoned by the United States as soon as a president hostile to the agreement waved good-bye to the moving van that deposited his stuff in the White House.  In this sense, the Paris Accords resemble the Versailles Treaty ending the First World War with Germany.  Even if the Accords could be converted to a real treaty, it is unlikely that it could get the two-thirds vote needed for ratification.  In short, the Democrats need to win more than a simple majority in the Senate to get a legally-binding treaty in place.  Even passing the legislation to implement a revived executive agreement could be tricky.  This will leave the Biden administration with the same slog through executive orders and rule-writing in which the Obama administration engaged so much energy. 

            One possible lever on the economy for the Biden administration would be to define climate change as not just an “environmental threat” or as a “national security threat,” but also as a “financial stability threat.”  Both the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank offer means to impose government policies without new legislation.  Both possess robust regulatory powers that can lever corporate policies and investor behavior in new directions. 

            The Obama-Trump-Biden pattern of rule writing followed by re-writing followed by re-re-writing is dangerous.  It turns what should be a predictable framework for decision-making into a quadrennial football.  On the one hand, the financial services industry is a vital part of America’s domestic economy and of its international trade.  Is it a good idea to build-in systemic uncertainty? 

On the other hand, the whole enterprise of governing through rule-writing and executive orders is deeply undemocratic.  It further exalts the executive branch; it further diminishes the legislative branch; and it further politicizes the judicial branch. 

No matter how much they are loved by their beneficiaries, rapid globalization and the growth of the “administrative state” have not received a unanimous warm welcome.  “Brexit” is best understood as a revolt against the European Union.  Donald Trump’s election is best understood as a revolt against the dominant policy strand of recent decades.  There is no guarantee that the revolt will end if Biden goes back to the same old policies. 


[1] Walter Russell Mead, “Climate Finance May Foul the Economy,” WSJ, 8 December 2020. 

[2] That’s not what I believe (although both things could be true).  It may well make sense in coal country or the oil patch or the “Rust Belt.”