Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Monthly Archives: March 2013

Drone Warfare

So, what government believes that it has the right to kill anyone, regardless of where they are, if the head of state believes that the person is a threat to the country’s national security?  No, the answer is not the government of North Korea.  It is the government of the United States.

And how does the government of the United States justify its policy of targeted assassinations?  According to a recent New York Times article:

On Page 4 of the unclassified 16-page “white paper,” Justice Department lawyers tried to refute the argument that international law does not support extending armed conflict outside a battlefield. They cited as historical authority a speech given May 28, 1970, by John R. Stevenson, then the top lawyer for the State Department, following the United States’ invasion of Cambodia.

Since 1965, “the territory of Cambodia has been used by North Vietnam as a base of military operations,” he told the New York City Bar Association. “It long ago reached a level that would have justified us in taking appropriate measures of self-defense on the territory of Cambodia. However, except for scattered instances of returning fire across the border, we refrained until April from taking such action in Cambodia.”

In fact, Nixon had begun his secret bombing of Cambodia more than a year earlier. (It is not clear whether Mr. Stevenson knew this.) So the Obama administration’s lawyers have cited a statement that was patently false.

To be sure, the administration may have additional arguments in support of its use of drones in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and other countries. To secure the confirmation of John O. Brennan as the C.I.A. director, it recently showed members of the Congressional intelligence committees some of the highly classified legal memos that were the basis for the white paper. But Mr. Obama has asked us to trust him, and Cambodia offers us no reason to do so.

The following link illustrates the escalation of drone warfare under President Obama by highlighting every known drone attack in Pakistan since 2004 and the estimated casualties: http://drones.pitchinteractive.com/

After watching the graphic take a few moments to explore the site, especially the victims and news links.

One Reason It Is Tough To Pass Progressive Legislation

Dylan Matthews, blogging in the Washington Post, discusses a very interesting paper that provides evidence showing that politicians seriously underestimate the progressivity of their constituents.

David Broockman and Christopher Skovron, the authors of the paper, “surveyed every candidate for state legislative office in the United States in 2012 [shortly before the November election] and probed candidates’ own positions and their perceptions of their constituents’ positions on universal health care, same-sex marriage, and federal welfare programs, three of the most publicly salient issues in both national-level and state-level American politics during the past several years.”  They then matched the results with estimates of the actual district- and issue-specific opinions of those residing in the candidates’ districts using a data set of almost 100,000 Americans.

Here is what they found:

Politicians consistently and substantially overestimate support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues. The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average. . . . Comparable figures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal office holders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents.

The following two charts illustrate this bias when it comes to universal health care and same sex marriage.

broockman_graph

As Matthews explain:

The X axis is the district’s actual views, and the Y axis their legislators’ estimates of their views. The thin black line is perfect accuracy, the response you’d get from a legislator totally in tune with his constituents. Lines above it would signify the politicians think the district more liberal than it actually is; if they’re below it, that means the legislators are overestimating their constituents’ conservatism. Liberal legislators consistently overestimate opposition to same-sex marriage and universal health care, but only mildly. Conservative politicians are not even in the right ballpark.

The authors found a similar bias regarding support for welfare programs.  Perhaps even more unsettling, the authors found no correlation between the amount of time candidates spent meeting and talking to people in their districts while campaigning for office and the accuracy of their perceptions of the political positions of those living in their districts.

One consequence of this disconnect is that office holders, even those with progressive views, are reluctant to take progressive positions.  More generally, these results speak to a real breakdown in “the ability of constituencies to control the laws that their representatives make on their behalf.”

 

Beyond Growth

While newspapers give a lot of ink to arguments about whether reducing the budget deficit will boost or reduce growth, they seem to have little interest in the related issue of whether economic growth really benefits the great majority.

David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize winning financial journalist, recently addressed this issue drawing on the work of economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty:

In 2011 entry into the top 10 percent . . . required an adjusted gross income of at least $110,651. The top 1 percent started at $366,623.

The top 1 percent enjoyed 81 percent of all the increased income since 2009. Just over half of the gains went to the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and 39 percent of the gains went to the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.

Ponder that last fact for a moment — the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, those making at least $7.97 million in 2011, enjoyed 39 percent of all the income gains in America.

So, 81 percent of all the new income generated from 2009 to 2011 was captured by the top 1 percent income earners, where income is defined as adjusted gross income, which refers to income minus deductions or taxable income.  In other words growth, even accelerated growth, is not going to do the majority much good if the economic structure remains the same.

Johnston highlights the problem with our existing economic model with perhaps an even more shocking example.  He compares the average income growth of the bottom 90 percent with the average income growth of the top 10 percent, 1 percent, and top 1 percent of the top 1 percent over the period 1966 to 2011.

It turns out that the average income of the bottom 90 percent rose by a miniscule $59 over the period (as measured in 2011 dollars).  By comparison, the average income of the top 10 percent rose by $116,071, the average income of the top 1 percent rose by $628,817, and the average income of the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent increased by a whopping $18,362,740.  In short, growth alone means little if the great majority of people are structurally excluded from the benefits.

In an effort to highlight this extreme disparity in adjusted income growth rates, Johnston suggests plotting the numbers on a chart, with $59, the amount gained by the bottom 90 percent, represented by a bar one inch high.  As the chart below shows, the bar representing average gains for the top 10 percent would be 163 feet high, that for the top 1 percent would be 884 feet high, and that for the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent would be 4.9 miles high.

Cay J

 

In sum, the real challenge facing the great majority of Americans is not figuring out how to make the economy growth faster.  Rather, it is figuring out how to create space for a real debate about how to transform our economy so that growth will actually satisfy majority needs.

 

The Austerity Agenda and Public Employment

While some austerity advocates really fear (although incorrectly) the consequences of deficit spending, the strongest proponents are actually only concerned with slashing government programs or the use of public employees to provide them.  In other words their aim is to weaken public programs and/or convert them into opportunities for private profit.

One measure of their success has been the steady decline in public employment.  Floyd Norris, writing in the New York Times notes:

For jobs, the past four years have been a wash.

The December jobs figures out today indicate that there were 725,000 more jobs in the private sector than at the end of 2008 — and 697,000 fewer government jobs. That works into a private-sector gain of 0.6 percent, and a government sector decline of 3.1 percent.

In total, the number of people with jobs is up by 28,000, or 0.02 percent.

How does that compare? It is by far the largest four-year decline in government employment since the 1944-48 term. That decline was caused by the end of World War II; this one was caused largely by budget limitations.

The chart below, taken from the same post also reveals just how weak private sector job creation has been over the past 12 years.

job changes

What follows is a screen shot of a graphic in a New York Times Business Day post.  It highlights just how significant the decline in public employment has been in this business cycle compared with past ones.  Each line shows the percentage change in public sector employment for specified months after the start of a recession.  Our recent recession began December 2007 and ended June 2009.   As you can see, what is happening now is far from usual.

job trends

It is also worth noting that despite claims that most Americans want to see cuts in major federal government programs, the survey data show the opposite.  For example, see the following graphic from Catherine Rampell’s blog post.

economix-22pewwhattocut-blog480

As Rampell explains:

In every category except for “aid to world’s needy,” more than half of the respondents wanted either to keep spending levels the same or to increase them. In the “aid to world’s needy” category, less than half wanted to cut spending.

Not surprisingly, this assault on government spending and employment will have real consequences for the economy and job creation.  Binyamin Appelbaum writes in the New York Times:

The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war.

And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate on Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years. . . .

Over the last two years, federal consumption and investment declined by 6.9 percent. Including state and local consumption, a larger category that has declined more slowly, the inflation-adjusted reduction since 2011 was 4.9 percent.

But Alec Phillips, an economist at Goldman Sachs, estimated that federal consumption could fall by another 11 percent over the next two years. Mr. Phillips also noted that those earlier rounds of cuts in the 1970s and the 1990s came primarily from the military budget. The sequester is designed to be indiscriminate, cutting everything from air traffic control to nursery schools.

That could increase the resulting pain, because economic research suggests that military cuts are less painful than other kinds of spending reductions.

“It is cutting some of the best spending that government does,” Professor Cowen said of the cuts that would fall on the domestic side of the ledger.

All of this takes us back to the starting point–we are talking policy here.  Whose interests are served by these trends?