The Quandary of Cause vs. Solution

Donald Trump rightly saw the economic distress of a large swatch of American workers as the opportunity to build a base for his eventual election. Workers had been suffering with no real wage increases for 40 years, ever since Reagan. And neither Democratic nor Republican Presidents had even slowed the steady advance of inequality. Inequality was approaching the level of the Robber Baron era of the 1920, and inequality has subsequently increased under Trump. Inequality in the US is the highest among developed countries.

Trump put his energy into excoriating immigrants and foreign countries as the cause of the economic woes of the working class. They were the “cause” in his hundreds of speeches. The workers were hungry for identifying a cause, culprits, and they bought it. It was simple (too simple), easy to understand. It gave them opponents to focus on, to rail against. Thus, all the working class support for the wall. This, notwithstanding extensive economic analysis showing only rarely do immigrants reduce wages, and as a whole they make a huge positive contribution to our economy, far in excess of any government assistance they may receive.

We have dramatically and tragically witnessed how easy it was to identify tangible culprits, and how easy to sell simple causes to a generation of economic woes for our workers. Regrettably, these were not the real causes. These were fake causes. It was not immigrants who caused the problem. It was not Mexico or China, or any other of our trade partners. Every legitimate economist took great exception with the trade wars. Peter Navarro was ridiculed by Larry Summers of Harvard and others who explained that the trade deficit is a fake cause and “fixing it” is a fake solution.

As an example of the problem: I took a class under Summers and Robert Lawrence, who spent several sessions carefully walking us through the workings of the global economy, explaining why the trade deficit is a fake problem and that fixing it is a fake solution. It’s not simple, but it’s absolutely clear when explained. With the cost of education as it is, with wages as they are, how many of our workers have the opportunity or even the time to take such an economics class? No wonder they’re vulnerable to simple solutions offered by a President who appears to have little understanding of economics.

Properly identifying the causes is complex and challenging. Voters need opportunity and information and education to get to a decent understanding.

But here’s my main point today: Identifying the causes is not nearly as important as offering a good solution. That’s really complex. Otherwise, how is it that every President since Reagan, regardless of your political affiliation, failed to arrest the advance of inequality, failed to fix the income tragedy of our workers? It wasn’t because none of them cared. It is complex!

Trump’s solution was to kill or punish the identified fake culprits. How has that worked? Wages are up 3% after 40 years of no real wage increases. Is that success? No. Probably just the result of a global recovery which is now slowing. Our gdp is now back to a sluggish 2%.

What’s the real solution? Well, it would take a huge study, a great collaborative effort to design it, and it wouldn’t fit into anyone’s blog post.

Here’s what it’s not:

  • It’s not reducing immigration or fighting trade wars. None of that is going to bring back manufacturing, as promised by Trump.
  • It’s not as simple as universal basic income alone, or taxing the wealthy and corporations, or wealth taxes, or free health care or free education, any of these taken alone. These are possible components, but not a comprehensive solution.
  • It is not a solution built primarily around increased welfare to the working class.

Here’s what the solution must include:

  • A steady reduction in inequality to a more moderate and sustainable level.
  • The realistic achievable of living wages for the vast majority of workers–in a generation.
  • Engagement of all stakeholders to make this happen: citizens, communities and states, corporations, educational institutions, and our federal government.

This is our opportunity and our necessity. Let’s get to it!

Critical 2020 Issue for Democrats

When I had the privilege of studying at Harvard during 2017, I focused much of my study on economic inequality. I had previously decided inequality is the greatest problem facing the world today–greater than climate change, greater than drug prices, greater than opioids and many other also legitimate concerns facing the US and most other countries around the globe.

Why? Because human existence depends on a safe level of income.  Without sufficient income to provide for one’s family, decent housing, health care, education, and healthy food, without these fundamental basics, how can one hope to advance even minimally on Maslow’s ladder? Every day for many of our workers is all about survival, and only survival. It’s immoral and also dangerous (for all of us) for us to allow such conditions to exist widely throughout our country.

Inequality has now risen to the level equal to that of the Robber Baron era of the 1920’s. All the gains from WWI and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society began to be erased with the neo-liberal economic era begun with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. Decades of both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to arrest the steady advance of inequality. Inequality in the US is the highest among developed countries.

High levels of inequality slow economic growth, expose vulnerable populations on the bottom to dangerous levels of crime, drugs, pollution, and health, reducing longevity. Inequality at this level results in homeless camped outside gated communities, children without housing or available parents.

No Liberal wants total equality, not even Bernie Sanders. But we need a significant adjustment. There’s a lot of room for that, without reducing motivation for innovators and investors to take risk.

If we do not reverse the pendulum, the nation will face a revolution–perhaps in the next generation–ala the French Revolution or the Chinese Revolution. No one should welcome that solution to the problem, least of all our wealthy.

in my year of study, one thing was clearly indisputable: It is virtually impossible to fix (even to just measurably reduce) inequality without economic growth. The Trump administration doesn’t appear to care much about inequality, but at today’s 2% GDP growth, they couldn’t do much anyway.

I am asking our 12 Democratic candidates to focus on inequality. Fixing it with higher taxes on the wealthy financing more in government welfare for the working class is not the solution: (1) it won’t sell to the voters; (2) workers don’t want handouts–they want work with living wages; and (3) the welfare approach is not sustainable fiscally and economically.

Fixing it means creating faster gdp growth. The fillip to growth from the Trump tax cut has now burned out, so Democrats must show a way to stronger economic growth. In fact, the history of the last 70 years shows Democratic administrations have consistently generated greater growth than Republican administrations.

Then, fixing it means creating a new environment of work in the US, braced against the winds of technology replacing workers and foreign countries offering better sources of some of our simpler and less complex goods and services. This means much more than Trump’s trumpeted low unemployment rate. Unemployment rates do not translate into wages, and wages for the working class are far short of “living wages.”

It’s nice and good to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, add a wealth tax and estate tax, use the money to pay for better health care and more affordable education. This is all good, but it’s not sufficient to win the election or to reverse 40 years of job and wage degeneration in the US.

DEMOCRATS: Your challenge is to lay out a plan involving communities, educational institutions, employers, and government motivation, to spawn the beginning of a new work paradigm for American workers.

A Word of Caution

My 12 Democratic candidates for US Presidency, you’re all far more capable than our President. I’ll vote for any one of you who is our final candidate. I hope all Democrats will do the same, regardless of your differences.

Here’s my word of caution: I believe the ultimate platform has to focus first on jobs and income for the working class. I believe the tragic state of 40 years of no real wage increases were the primary problem/vulnerability that resulted in the Trump presidency. Of course, we know he sold a fake set of reasons–immigrants stealing jobs, foreign countries stealing companies and jobs, weak trade deals, etc.

The opportunity we have is to show that 4 years of Trump’s focus on these fake culprits has only resulted in a 3% wage increase for the working class–and that this is NOT satisfactory. Unemployment rates do not translate to living wages for American workers! Of course, this sets aside that he simply inherited a global recovery.

At this time, I know you’re trying to distinguish yourselves with primary personal foci–e.g., climate change, environment, wealth and income taxes, women’s reproductive rights, universal basic income, etc. All of these are valuable, and perhaps you all agree with my point, but you’ve planned to get to the key issue at the right time.

But if you’re not thinking this way, please give serious consideration. Two reasons: (1) to the Trump supporters, I am 100% convinced this is the basic issue–how to make a living, care for my family, provide for health care, education, and see some real wage increases (not 3%). They are vocal about guns, abortion, Israel, and other concerns, but it should be very clear that a good living is fundamental. (2) What can be more essential than basic living conditions for me and my family, and opportunity for me to realistically hope for a better future for myself and especially for my children? If I don’t see this, I’m sorry, but I can’t get around to worrying much about the environment or abortion, etc.

So far, I haven’t seen any of you clearly enunciate a plan which offers the working class better working and earning and living opportunity. Additional welfare will not sell to voters as the answer, plus our citizens don’t want government assistance except where that’s critical. They want to make it on their own–but working two jobs in a low unemployment/low wage economy is NOT leading a promising direction.

If we have nothing more to offer than that, nothing more than $1,000 per month in UBI for everyone, nothing more than free health care, etc., we will not beat Trump in 2020! He won on promising the workers a better life. If you want to give him credit, he delivered a tiny tax cut and a tiny wage increase, along with destroying alliances, skyrocketing the deficit and debt, etc. We must show that (a) this is totally unsatisfactory, an abysmal failure: and (b) we have a plan to offer something believable, far better, that is realistic, achievable.

If we don’t do this, I doubt our success in 2020. Decades of both Democrats and Republicans have failed to deliver such, inequality continues to increase. Now is the time to address and sell the beginning of the future for American workers.