The Problem of the Liberal Elites Part 4 Conclusion

Most economists supported NAFTA, and then spent years justifying their support with models and econometric studies they claimed showed that it had little effect. They continued to support trade treaties when China entered the World Trade Organization. They supported the KORUS deal and most supported TPP. Meanwhile, manufacturing job losses increased from the allegedly minor losses of NAFTA to astonishingly high levels.
Link. Link. The linked studies don’t count ancillary job losses, including the jobs that never came here because US corporate executives took US generated capital and know-how overseas to build new plants, many with advanced manufacturing capability. The damage done by these trade deals to people and communities is obvious now, especially after Bernie Sanders won the Michigan primary, and an increasing number of economists are talking about it in public.

There is a strong parallel here with the crucial role played by economists in deregulation of the financial sector. This too had widespread support from economists across ideological spectrum.

How did these experts get it so wrong, and wreak such damage on so many people? I think it’s because they have so much confidence in their models, and use their authority as experts to push through policies based on those models. And if I’m right, this is a genuine problem for liberal experts.

We can see the confidence in models in Krugman’s work. In this blog post, Krugman takes up the question of why economists were so late to the study of inequality. He says he agrees with this Bloomberg View column by Justin Fox (which gives a nice history of the issue), but says that Fox missed a critical part of that failure: inequality is “a hard issue to model”.

The other [issue one might model] involves the personal distribution of income and wealth. Why are investment bankers paid so much? Why did the gap between CEOs and the average worker widen so much after 1980?

And here’s the thing: we really don’t know how to model personal income distribution — at best we have some semi-plausible ad hoc stories. Part of why Piketty made such a big splash was that he offered a sketch of a model of wealth inequality that tied it into broader macro numbers — r > g and all that — which gave all of us something systematic to talk about. But he himself concedes that the big rise in inequality so far has come from a surge in the right tail of earnings, which may have had something to do with norms, but in any case isn’t well explained by any model we have right now. Emphasis in original.

Krugman claims to rely on his models. He’s written a number of blog posts explaining his views and defending the process against those who argue that models are worthless if they don’t predict disasters and other bitter criticisms. Here’s an example from earlier this year.

And that really gets at my point, which is not that existing models are always the right guide for policy, but that policy preferences should be disciplined by models. If you don’t believe the implications of the standard model in any area, OK; but then give me a model, or at least a sketch of a model, to justify your instincts.

Conservatives and their economists insist that the vast increase in incomes at the top and the decrease at the bottom are the result of some special skill or lack of skill, or that the “market pays people what they are worth”; but that is just false, as I explain in detail here and here. Fox says that economists should look outside their specialties and consider the possibility of changing social norms, as some sociologists suggest, or changes in laws and political priorities, as some political scientists suggest. I doubt that social norms have changed. Every survey I’ve seen says that people don’t know the actual figures about wealth and income inequality, and wildly underestimate them.

Krugman says Piketty offers the explanation of “r > g and all that”, but what I read in Piketty is his theory that the rich use their economic and political power to get favorable changes in laws, regulations and court rulings, changes that increase wealth and income inequality solely for their benefit, with the losses inflicted on the rest of us. As far as I can tell, raw economic and political power are completely outside the economist field of view, simply because they cannot be modeled. And on top of that, those models don’t even consider fraud and corruption, which play a large role in our version of capitalism.

In his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, Krugman makes the case that the real basis for NAFTA is foreign policy. It was intended to help Mexico transition to a more Westernized economy, which he thought was a good idea. That is a policy judgment, not an economic judgment. But whatever the government and the economists thought, NAFTA was an experiment in the exercise of raw economic power.

The same thing was true about China and the WTO, and TPP and TISA and US/China deals like BITs. The point of these treaties is to change the nature of existing markets and social structures, to create non-governmental forms of control of trade and property, and to protect and enhance the economic power of some US industries at the expense of the lives of millions of workers. Hiding behind weasel words like Free Trade and the professional reputations of most economists, Congress has ceded US sovereignty to a bunch of rogue corporations acting strictly in the interest of profits and shareholder returns, with neoliberals in both parties supporting Fast Track approval of whatever they want.

Krugman counts himself a lukewarm opponent of TPP, as do other liberal economists, for political and not economic reasons. Even though the damage is done, it’s nice to see this change.

That leads me to the conclusion that liberal elites, especially liberal economists, have a real problem: they have been wrong too often on too many important issues. They were wrong about trade. They were wrong about neoliberal economics in general, the Washington Consensus, and, as Queen Elizabeth II pointed out, they couldn’t even see the Great Crash coming.

After the Great Crash, they searched for explanations, but while some focused on the effect of deregulation, there were still plenty of defenders, including many who denied the relevance of the gradual weakening and then elimination of Glass-Steagall, but none of those explanations touched on fraud and corruption. No liberal economists called for prosecutions. Instead they focused the debate on the nature of their models, claiming that they were unfairly blamed for not predicting the Great Crash. Of course, those were the very models they used to advise policy makers that deregulation would be just fine.

Economists have all used the same introductory textbooks for decades now, teaching the simple tropes of capitalism. That sets the baseline for economic theory for the great mass of citizens who have been taught to think the ideas of Econ 101 as laid out the textbooks of Mankiw or Samuelson and Nordhaus are Gospel. Liberal economists who move away from those ideas are rejected by conservatives.

Now liberals say we trusted you to be right, and you weren’t. And not just that, you were wrong in the worst possible way: you concurred with conservative economists. That costs the liberal elites credibility with liberals and even many centrists.

And progressives, the heirs to FDR, by nature more suspicious of wealth and power, say: we trusted you, but you didn’t even question the goals and motives of the rich and powerful. Why would we ever trust you? We aren’t even sure we’re on the same side.

That presents liberal economists with a real problem. Why would anyone listen to them now?

Index to prior posts in this series.

The Problem of the Liberal Elites Part 3 on Trade

Paul Krugman has been walking back his nearly unbridled support of trade treaties lately. In this blog post, he says “I think I’ve never assumed away the income distribution effects.” Those distributional effects are, he says, predicted by the standard models. In the Foreign Affairs article I’ve discussed in the last two posts in this series, he must be referring to his statement that NAFTA will “…probably lead to a slight fall in the real wages of unskilled U.S. workers”. Here’s part of of his explanation:

When a country with a highly skilled labor force increases its trade with a country in which skill is at a greater premium, it can expect a decline in the real wages of its own unskilled workers. As a matter of economic principles, we should expect to see at least some adverse impact of NAFTA on the wages of American manual workers.

All the evidence suggests, however, that this effect will be extremely small. For one thing, since the existing barriers to trade between the United States and Mexico are already quite low, it is hard to see how removing them could have any dramatic effect on wage rates.

At first, the evidence did better, but then the trade explosion with China began. That resulted in enormous job losses directly and indirectly in the US, The rest of what happened is that real wages of both the working class and the middle class stagnated, and substantially all the gains went to a tiny minority of rich people. I don’t see that prediction in this or any of Krugman’s other writings. In fact, inequality plays no role in any of these early works of Krugman or, for that matter, any other liberal or conservative economists.

As part of his walk-back on free trade, Krugman says this:

Furthermore, as Mark Kleiman sagely observes, the conventional case for trade liberalization relies on the assertion that the government could redistribute income to ensure that everyone wins — but we now have an ideology utterly opposed to such redistribution in full control of one party, and with blocking power against anything but a minor move in that direction by the other.

Here’s what Kleiman said:

The Econ-101 case for free trade is straightforward: Trade benefits those who produce exports and those who consume imports (including producers who use imported goods as inputs). It hurts the producers of goods which can be made better or more cheaply abroad. But the gains to the winners exceed the gains to the losers: that is, the winners could make the losers whole and still come out ahead themselves. Therefore, trade passes the Pareto test.

[Yes, this elides a number of issues, including path-dependency in increasing-returns and learning-by-doing markets on the pure-economics side and the salting of actual agreements with provisions that create or protect economic rents on the political-economy side. It also ignores the biggest gainers from trade: workers in low-wage countries, most notably the Chinese factory workers whose parents were barefoot peasants.]

So, the key point in this analysis is the Pareto test. This is the idea that any change in any change in economic allocation that makes one person or group better off without hurting anyone else is good. Suppose the 1% has 90% of the wealth of a society, and the 99% has the rest. If you try to take some of the wealth from the 1% to balance things out a bit, you violate the Pareto test, because the 1% is made worse off by loss of a bit of wealth, even though the bulk of society is better off. That principle sounds like a justification for the way the rich whine about taxation. It also sounds like a lousy way to run a society.

The Pareto test also implies that if a change benefits one group and another group loses, then if the winners pay enough to make the losers whole financially, then it should be just fine. That’s what Kleiman means when he talks about the government redistributing the benefits of trade. So, suppose the allocation of the social goods in a society gives the 1% all the gains but the 99% all lose. Then we redistribute money from the 1% to the 99%. Krugman and the rest of the liberal elites accepted this as a justification for the damage which their models predicted free trade would inflict on the working class. This astonishing idea is common in the economist tribe, even among more conservative economists.

I hardly need point out that neither political party ever contemplated any reallocation of gains either on the expected losses from NAFTA (small decrease in real wages of low-skilled workers), or on the massive losses that arose from trade with China. Krugman didn’t mention this argument in his 1993 Foreign Affairs article. Congress did set up a small program to support the hundreds of thousands who lost jobs because of NAFTA, but those funds were quickly exhausted, did little to ameliorate the problem and never reached anyone who didn’t get a job because US corporate executives built new advanced manufacturing facilities in China and Taiwan. And there was no compensation for anyone whose job was an indirect casualty of the closing of US factories, and no compensation to communities wrecked by plant closures, or forced to bid tax concessions and more to keep jobs.

So, how did things turn out so badly when the great brains all told us it would all work out on average?

The Problem of Liberal Elites Part 2 On Trade

Paul Krugman begins his 1993 defense of NAFTA by insulting its opponents gratuitously and wrongly. Then he offers the readers of Foreign Policy the defense of trade treaties they love.

The truth about NAFTA may be summarized in five propositions:

• NAFTA will have no effect on the number of jobs in the United States;
• NAFTA will not hurt and may help the environment;
• NAFTA will, however, produce only a small gain in overall U.S. real income;
• NAFTA will also probably lead to a slight fall in the real wages of unskilled U.S. workers;
• For the United States, NAFTA is essentially a foreign-policy rather than an economic issue.

NAFTA won’t affect the number of jobs, says Krugman, because the only important factor driving number of jobs is interest rates set by the Fed.

Moreover, it is a choice that responds to economic conditions; the decision to raise or lower interest rates represents a trade-off between the Fed’s desire to raise employment (drive somewhere) and its fear of inflation (a speeding ticket). …

Suppose that NAFTA really does lead to a rise in U.S. imports from Mexico, one that would, other things being the same, reduce U.S. employment by 500,000 over the next ten years. Will other things actually be the same? Of course not. The Fed, faced with the prospect of a weaker economy, will set interest rates lower than it otherwise would have. Conversely, other things being equal, if NAFTA would add half a million jobs, interest rates would be higher. The Fed will, without doubt, miss the target-but it is as likely to overshoot as to undershoot, and over the course of a decade there is no reason to suppose that the average level of employment will be any different with NAFTA than without.

How did that work out? It seems to be true that the overall impact of NAFTA on employment was neutral, though not necessarily for the reason Krugman gave. See, for example this chart showing all manufacturing (definition) jobs for the period 1987 to the present, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Manufacturing jobs 1987 - present

Formulating the issue in terms of total employment, by sector or otherwise, fails to answer any of the crucial questions. What was the effect of NAFTA on communities where the factories were closed? What kinds of jobs are the new ones? How do those jobs meet the needs of workers for income, financial security and job satisfaction? What happened in specific areas? Were the results the same for Los Angeles and for Celina, Tennessee? What happened to the losers? Who profited? Aggregate studies hide the real impact of trade treaties in exactly the way that they miss the point of the farmers’ anger as I discussed in this post.

So, here’s a a story. My law partner was a Bankruptcy Trustee in Tennessee; he was assigned to handle all the cases from the area around Cookeville, TN. In the mid to late 1990s, he was called to deal with an emergency bankruptcy of a cut and sew plant in his area. This is a company that has machines to cut fabric to a pattern and sewing machines; the workers cut the cloth and sew it into clothes. In this case, it was blue jeans. One Friday after work, trucks pulled up to the factory, loaded all the machines and office equipment and moved them to Mexico. They left behind several pallets of completed jeans, which needed to be secured and sold. The workers were not paid. The jeans were “hot goods”, and became property of the US Department of Labor, which hired the Trustee to sell them and distribute the funds to the workers so they got partial payment. The secured creditors and general creditors got nothing. It was about that time my partner reported that one of his cases was a 35 year old guy with few teeth, which, his lawyer said privately, was the result of heavy meth use. That was only the first such case.

Perhaps Krugman would be surprised to learn that the Fed did not intervene to create new jobs in the Cookeville area. How exactly would that happen? Workers who lose their jobs burn up their savings or live off their friends and relations and churches, or on credit cards or the safety net until they get back on their feet. Many don’t. Trade economists like Krugman don’t count these and related losses when they run their computerized models. Most people don’t care because they get cheaper jeans. All the discussion, all the studies of NAFTA, ignore these and many more localized effects.

Krugman admits that if the job losses were very large, his model might not work. Even if the impact of NAFTA on manufacturing jobs was small, that isn’t so with China. Recent studies say that imports from China might have resulted in 2.4 million jobs lost between 1999 and 2011. Is that enough to upset Krugman’s certainty? How many millions of jobs never happened here because US corporate executives exported US-made knowledge, US-generated capital, and frequently entire US factories to other nations. Computer chips and other high-tech equipment weren’t invented in Taiwan or China or Japan, but they got the advanced manufacturing jobs, not the citizens of the US whose hard work laid the groundwork for creating those valuable assets. Worse, the corporate executives arranged to duck US taxes on their profits. Their refusal to pay taxes leads to the further deterioration of conditions in the US.

Krugman knows this. His Nobel Prize was for his demonstration that “national location of specialized production is indeterminate; there will be specialization, but how it is distributed across countries cannot be determined ex ante”, as a correspondent explained it to me in a private email. The policy of Asian nations is to grab those manufacturing operations by nay means necessary. The US, dominated by single-minded free marketeers, doesn’t have an industrial policy, or a safety net, for that matter. It relies on some magic and undefined “market” to fix everything.

Congress won’t lift a finger to help the people of Cookeville. Liberal elites, like Krugman, tell us everything will work out fine. On average.

Index to prior posts in this series.