A Story of a Family

Feb 1, 2018

There was once a very large family which was rich in assets, spending more than their income, and thus heavily in debt. The father proposed to build a big fence on one side of the property. Since they had no money to pay for it, he promised the people on the other side of it would pay for it. Few in the family thought it was needed, but the father insisted it was needed for their safety from those people. Most of the family did not feel they were unsafe, and if they should be, the big fence wouldn’t do any good.

Later, when the people on the other side refused to pay, had no obligation or reason to do so, he said we will just borrow more to do it. He said someday, someway, he’d fulfill his promise to get the money from those people, through a scheme that seemed very hard to understand or believe.

And he said to the family, if you don’t support me in this, I’m going to punish some other people. These people were not members of the big family, had hoped to be, and were law abiding, honest, hard working, and paying their taxes. They were very afraid of the father. He was in a position to harm them with a stroke of his pen.

Then, the father promised to give big Christmas presents to the family this year. He admitted he didn’t have the money to do it, but he said he could borrow the money and that the outcome of this big Christmas would be so great for everyone, and that somehow it would pay for itself. Very few family members believed that could happen.

But he found a way to borrow the money for the Christmas presents, even though the family was heavily in debt. Enough older children supported him to get the bank to agree. He couldn’t show how it would get paid, so he just said, “Trust me, I’m the smartest person ever. I am a genius.” So, they did.

Then, at Christmas, it turned out that some of the youngest children only got a small piece of candy in their stockings, while older children in the same family received new bicycles, iPhones, and laptops. The oldest got new Teslas, and not the cheaper Model 3 with delayed production, but the luxury Model S with a range of 300 miles. The father took one for himself.

When the youngest children asked about the way Christmas gifts were divided up, the father berated them. He called them names in public–one Pocahantas, another Crazy Jim, and continued with Sneaky Dianne, Frankenstein Al, Wacky Frederica, Crooked Hillary, Crazy Bernie, and many other names.

He said they should trust that the older children would let them play with their toys and they would get to ride in the Teslas sometimes. None of that seemed to be happening, because the older children did not really want to share. They felt they deserved everything they got, and more.

He said if the younger children did not like it, maybe they shouldn’t be in the family anymore, because he didn’t want anyone in the family who wasn’t “on my team.”

This is a real family. This really happened. It’s a very big family with a lot more younger children than older children, a lot more who got very little, while a few got a lot.

There are many outside the family who are threatened with punishment if he doesn’t get everyone agreeing to the new fence, and very soon. The family doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills next month unless he gets his way, so he can borrow even more–$1 Trillion dollars to pay for the big Christmas and to pay family bills. He has a lot of armed guards stationed around the family property already, and it costs a lot of money to provide for them. No other family has anything like that in the way of guards and expense and debt—only this family.

Most of the younger kids saw through the broken promise of the new fence for security reasons and who would pay for it, and they saw that the “big Christmas” was big only for the older kids and very, very small for the younger kids. They didn’t see any promise fulfillment and felt highly betrayed. But the older kids had more power.

And a very strange thing was also true in the family. A smaller group of the younger kids who got very little continued to believe the father. They believed their security was at risk. They believed the small gifts they got were great and that they would get more later, as promised. They joined the father in threatening the other kids who didn’t agree.

And for those outside family threatened with punishment, this part of the family agreed. They thought it would be just fine to punish those people. They only cared about their family, and only for those who agreed with the father.

No one knows what’s going to happen to this family, which was once a great family.

Americans Do Care About Inequality!

It’s very tiring to hear politicians on the right (some even on the left) say, “Americans don’t care about inequality. They only care about opportunity.”

The implication is that we should celebrate being a country where one can achieve great wealth, and we don’t want to do anything to disturb that opportunity–just try to create more of that, so anyone can “make it big.” Certainly don’t tax the wealthy more. That might reduce their incentive to keep creating jobs, And, I’m planning to be wealthy someday, so I don’t want to create obstacles that would further tax me at that time.

It turns out this is a popular theme, since Americans have a long standing commitment to independence–the idea that anyone can make it on his own if he just works hard enough. The last place we want help from is the government, which is far too wasteful and inefficient. So, we’re headed the other direction–tax the rich less and reduce government more.

But there are serious problems with this set of beliefs. First, studies show that mobility has declined dramatically in parallel to the increase in inequality, all since Reagan.

And, there are many of us who do care about inequality. Why do we care? If everything was gained not only legally, but also fairly, the problem would be smaller. There would still be a worthy debate, but it would be constrained to considerations associated with the differing natural genetic inheritance of citizens and the differences in the households into which they were born (wealthy or poor, educated or not, etc.). This would still leave a lot of room for diagreeemnt as to whether or not it is fair for someone with good genetic inheritance and/or the benefits of privileged birth and upbringing to succeed highly, vs. the lesser opportunity of those without such advantages.

But there is more. There is the question of the fairness of our system. Examples:

What about the hundreds (or thousands) of loopholes and deductions that have been granted certain businesses and individuals in our complex tax code, not reduced much in the newly approved tax plan? The shareholders and executives of such companies benefit enormously from these protections, at the expense of the rest of us, who must pay more to make up for those losses.

Then, there are industries which are subsided by the government, either with direct payments to keep them afloat or with any variety of export or import quotas or tax protections to protect them. Who makes those decisions? Are these decisions fair to taxpayers like me?

Carried interest deductions for hedge fund managers. Even Republicans refuse to defend this, but continued it in the new legislation.

What about corporate executives like John Stumpf of Wells Fargo, who get paid $23 million, while the company is spiraling into multiple frauds and regulatory failure?.

Warren Buffet, one of the richest in the world, admitted he pays a lower percentage of tax than his secretary. No one really thinks this is fair. Mitt Romney was found to be in the same situation when he ran for President. Both are lawful, no one can blame them for taking advantage of the legal loopholes, but it isn’t fair.

What about President Trump, who launched many businesses that failed, leaving stockholders, banks, vendors and workers with the losses, because he did not guarantee the debt? Legal, but unfair.

So, how do you feel when you walk through the Business Class section of the airplane on your way to crowded and uncomfortable coach seating, while privileged customers are sipping their free champagne? Do you have any moment of wondering how their wealth was obtained, whether every one of them gained it fairly, or without privilege of birth?

I venture to suggest that most of us do have such moments, considering that there is so much opportunity for wealth interests (corporate and individual) to influence legislation with unlimited advertising, lobbying, and tax free “think tanks” creating justification for legislators who cater more to the wealthy of their constituents than to the poor.

Inequality matters.

We need to provide a great deal more transparency about the legislative and taxing decisions–who is benefited and why? And, we need to make a commitment to fairness in such decisions.

Legality is not the ultimate determinant of fairness.

I don’t like to hear that the American people don’t care about inequality. Who asked me? I care.



Preparing for Jobs Lost to Automation

To Prepare for Automation, Focus on Productivity

By: Dale Walker

Photo Credit: Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash.com 

As a 2017 Fellow in Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, I have come to rank David Autor among the best economists in my primary area of study, economic inequality.

This commentary responds to an excellent paper by Drs. Autor of MIT and Anna Salomons of University School of Economics in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Their June 17, 2017 paper attempts to answer a critical question “Does Productivity Growth Threaten Employment?”

Technology is advancing rapidly in robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D printing, self-driving vehicles, and a wide variety of software and digitization services and products. Oxfam has estimated that 45 percent of U.S. jobs are highly likely to be eliminated by automation within 20 years.

Autor and Salomons conclude that as certain industries adopt technology and downsize human employment, there will probably be equivalent or larger offsetting increases in “spillover” jobs in other industries.

Here’s why: Productivity increases as technology is added. As productivity increases, the economy grows. Economic growth results in more jobs being created in health care, food, recreation, travel, and other services and products. Companies manufacturing robots or creating software solutions also hire to meet the demand for new technology.

While their analysis seems sound, the fate of displaced workers is not sufficiently addressed. There is a relatively straightforward way for the downside to be significantly softened, enabling workers to navigate the change without undue pain.

We should prepare for the worst, and celebrate if it turns out better.

There is a possibility that Autor and others are wrong. There is a stronger possibility that there are sufficient but less desirable, jobs – jobs with lower pay, less security, fewer benefits. But there is a certainty also – that the transition for displaced workers will be hard.

Perhaps today’s kids see it coming, take the right courses and prepare to land good jobs in the new economy. But while younger generations might be able to correct their professional course for the oncoming wave of automation, their parents cannot. A whole generation of today’s adults, especially those without a college education, suffers a painful transition.

Such a generational transition happened when industry replaced agriculture as the main employer in the first half of the 20th century. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath paints the picture of family after family starving, homeless, moving from one overcrowded labor camp to another until there was simply nothing but death as relief. The government was not there for its people.

Technology is good for America. We don’t want to slow it down. Technology adds productivity, and that means economic growth. It brings amazing lifestyle benefits to all of us. But it has a downside for many caught without the right skills in the transition.

Average U.S. net worth is only about $69,000, according to the Census Bureau. The average worker, when displaced, is quickly in trouble with this paltry financial protection.

The fix for the painful transition is within our power. We can easily forecast the industries in which technology is going to reduce jobs. We know where companies are located. Training programs specific to the employment opportunities in the areas of expected displacements can be developed in advance. Facilitating collaboration between local employers, local educational institutions, and local governments and citizens can do this.

Skill development and job placement services can be supplemented by federal unemployment compensation and temporarily added obligations on employers who are gaining the technological benefits.

It is not government’s role to eliminate all job risk. But we cannot justify or afford to leave job displacement due to fully anticipated rapid technological change solely to individual worker responsibility.

There is a significant return on this investment. We will experience reduced costs to homelessness, crime, drug addiction, and other societal costs for displaced workers vulnerable to a downward emotional spiral. We will gain from their early return to productivity.  We can restore the global image of America as a place where people help people.

Millennials and the American myth: Opportunity is not knocking for many

October 12, 2017

illustration Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill, Getty Images/Blend Images

Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill, Getty Images/Blend Images

Raj Chetty of Stanford University and associates analyzed the likelihood that an American child will earn more than his father. In their 2016 study, they found 90 percent of us Baby Boomers did. But for people born in the ’80s, the chances fall to only 50 percent.

This is hard for Baby Boomers to believe, because most of us did so well. My annual salary rose to 45 times that of my father’s highest salary. Many had similar results, especially around the prosperous Bay Area.

 My parents were factory workers. They could only get the four of us through public schools. But public schools were good. Students could manage the cost of college in the ’60s with work, borrowing and modest scholarships. Good jobs abounded. Wages increased. Economic growth was strong.

The country was also much more equal in wealth and incomes.

Underscoring the crisis, Donald Trump rode to the presidency on a wave of anger over jobs, wages and loss of opportunity.

Americans are also blinded by a stubborn national prejudice preventing us from accepting loss of opportunity. Since our founding, Americans have prided themselves on individuality. Notwithstanding the facts, the myth of American opportunity available for all has strengthened, even in the face of declining opportunity. More of us say we don’t need government, because this is the land of opportunity. Everyone can make it without help, if only they try.

While many of us have the money to protect opportunity for our own kids, opportunity has plummeted for the underprivileged. If the average achieving the American dream has fallen from 90 percent to 50 percent, the chances for a kid of color from a poor neighborhood are now dismal.

They concluded:

“If one wants to revive the ‘American Dream’ of high rates of absolute mobility (opportunity), one must have an interest in growth that is shared more broadly across the income distribution.”

We are advancing toward a highly stratified society of haves and have-nots. This will make walking down the street unpleasant, maybe dangerous. Crime, drug addiction, homelessness and other societal costs will increase.

Eventually, continuance of this trend will result in bloodshed and revolution.

Antitax hawk Grover Norquist says we should drown government in the bathtub, but it turns out opportunity goes down the drain with it.

We don’t need to grow government. We can reallocate to provide funds. Local and state governments can do a lot.

Let’s take the first step by agreeing that our priorities are restoring shared prosperity and opportunity.

It’s not just in the interest for the underprivileged among us. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

Dale Walker is a San Francisco retired financial services executive. He serves on the boards of Pacific Vision Foundation, the Graduate Theological Union and Beneficial State Bank. He is a 2017 Fellow in Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative.


Who’s Reaping The Fruits of Technology?

August 25,2017, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Recently I have been debating with friends the question of who is reaping the benefits of technological advancement in the last decade or so. I argued that only the creators and their few employees and investors are reaping the benefits. My friends rightfully pointed out the many benefits that everyone enjoys. Both opinions are correct.

My friends reminded me that nearly everyone in the world can have a cell phone now, and that telephone and internet costs are very cheap. So are the costs of a lot of very helpful and enjoyable consumer appliances such as TV’s and computers. Many other appliances we previously used without the benefit of much technology, such as cars, refrigerators, heaters and air conditioners are not only cheaper to purchase, but with the help of advanced technology, can do their jobs better and far less expensively.

But here is my counter-point: What good is all this if you have only sufficient income to buy a few of the technological necessities, but not enough to provide decent housing, health care, education and other necessities for your family? While many costs have declined, the cost of housing and services such as health care and education have increased dramatically. Meanwhile, the wages of the middle and lower classes have been stagnant for decades now. An iPhone is a poor consolation prize for not being able to afford to go to the doctor or live in a decent home.

The benefits of employment in technology look very exciting if you are a young software developer, but not so promising if you are older, don’t have a college degree, and lost your traditional manufacturing job. As of 2015, only 32.5% of Americans over age 25 had achieved a Bachelor’s degree. College enrollment is dropping, with the primary reason being finances–the growing gap between wages and college costs.

And even if you do have a college degree, the outlook for an economy based on tech jobs pales in comparison to millions of manufacturing jobs lost. Apple employs 116,000, and Google 72,000. The brick-and-mortar employer Walmart employs 2.2 million, but tech companies need fewer workers than do legacy retailers and manufacturers. Amazon employs only 341,000, and with this force already does 1/3 the sales volume of Walmart.

A large part of the value of technology is in the market value of tech companies, which constitutes a major portion of market indices now. Larry Kudlow likes to argue that the working class of Americans also enjoy the benefit of stock ownership. But how significant can that be when the average net worth of the bottom 60% of the population is only as shown below? How much could they possibly earn on such modest capital?

Bottom 20 Percent -$6,029
Next 20 Percent $7,263
Middle 20 Percent $68,828

Both opinions are correct, but for each family the bottom line is what matters. I leave it to statisticians to calculate the plusses and minuses of lower cost items, higher cost housing and services, and stagnant wages, but I think it’s clear that the net result is bleak for the bottom 50% of our population,

Whatever you may think, one thing is clear: the voters who elected Donald Trump did so with great frustration over the failure of government to assure our economy continues to deliver enough good jobs. Frustrations with immigrants, foreign countries, people of other religions, etc., have in large part to do with fear that these folks have taken all the good jobs, a fear our President stoked with his rhetoric. He has yet to show any sign of focusing on the real issues and setting about to fix them.

To those who recognize this political reality, yet choose to dismiss it as not reflecting the very real and dire economic plight for this large segment of our working population, there is only one way to reconcile their views. They choose to regard those disadvantaged as largely a group of wastrels, who only want to live off welfare and do not grasp the reality that taking personal responsibility is the only and certain way to succeed in life. And that no one and nothing can be blamed for their plight, except themselves.


How to Reduce Inequality

August 25, 2017, Ho Chi Minh City

When we talk about “fixing” inequality, we need to be clear: the question is how to reduce or moderate inequality, not how to eliminate it.

Rather than using redistribution to achieve moderation in inequality, it would be a far greater achievement to actually redesign our form of capitalism in order to enable everyone to have a “good job,” eliminating the need for welfare. This is possible, but a radical undertaking.

In the absence of such a radical redesign, and within the current system of property rights, it is going to take much greater will on the part of citizens and their elected representatives than is evident today in the US to alter our redistributive policies such as to reduce inequality.

It’s not a problem of inadequate policy tools. Policy created the inequality, or at least enabled and exacerbated it, and policy can fix it. Our government has many levers to effectively and fairly moderate inequality if we can find the political will.

These levers can be divided into three broad categories: those which reduce the income or wealth of the rich, those which are used to redistribute government revenue in ways which will reduce inequality, and the law.

Reducing the excess incomes and wealth driving up inequality starts with tax policy. Studies by Emmanuel Saez and others conclude that there is much room for increased income taxes on high incomes and wealth without destroying motivation. We could also use tax revenue management to motivate businesses to engage more in inequality-reducing measures. For example, for companies which pay their C Suite above a certain reasonable level vs their average employee salaries, there could be an added tax, or there could be a tax credit for those which do not, or both.

Similarly, we could use tax policy to incentivize corporations to invest in affordable housing in their communities. We could use taxes to encourage them to open their resources to new entrepreneurs–data, research, space, laboratories, etc. There is likely a proliferation of additional services of value which can be added to the present production of major companies without diminishing their existing opportunities.

In addition to providing corporate incentives, tax policy can be used much more directly on an individual level. In his now famous recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty recommends a wealth tax as the most effective way of dealing with inequality. It would ideally be global, so that the wealthy do not move to other countries to avoid the tax. Inheritance is a major component of growing wealth inequality.

The spending side of a government budget represents an array of levers to achieve reduction in inequality. At the top of the list is spending more on education. That’s because we have skilled jobs available for which our workers are not trained, and because the future of the US knowledge or digital economy is dependent on well-educated workers. The challenges of focusing on education for significantly increased government support are three: (1) There is little agreement as to what the future of education should be in programmatic terms. The pace of change in technology, as one major example, is confounding planners in preparing to educate children of the future. (2) Education takes a long time to pay off. If starting with the very young, the results may be 20 years in coming. This leaves a whole generation without benefit, unless there is a big program dealing with skills needs of adults without a college education. (3) No one trusts government to do anything well.

Education spending is the first step, but there are dozens of other ways to spend money that will not only reduce inequality, but help businesses and individuals across all income ranges. Infrastructure improvement is an incredibly important tool, one which benefits the poor as well as business and the wealthy. Why not?

There is also law as a tool. Greater pursuit and prosecution of corruption, shorter limits to patent protections, greater protections for workers vs. the corporation, and greater protections for labor unions are some of dozens (or hundreds) of changes that would make significant impacts on inequality in America.

It is right to acknowledge that none of the above solutions are likely to be put in place, and if any, it will likely be in an insufficient combination and force to make a major difference. Inequality is likely to continue to edge up, barring a radical comprehensive change, such as that which occurred as a result of WWII. Professor Walter Scheidel of Stanford argues that “war, revolution, state collapse, and deadly pandemics” are the only ways inequality can be reversed. My economics professor at SOAS in 2013, where I wrote a thesis on inequality, had the same opinion – revolution is the only solution. And, both good and bad, Dr. Scheidel expects none of these as likely to happen as in the past.

Some argue that increased economic growth will reduce inequality, but it hasn’t done so in past periods of strong growth. Government intervention in one of these or other ways will be required.

We have the highest level of inequality among developed countries, and it will inevitably continue to rise. We have abundant tools to reduce it, but we lack the political will to address it.