Mitchell’s Musings 11-21-16: One Out of Five - What Might Have Been

18 Nov 2016 5:15 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 11-21-16: One Out of Five - What Might Have Been

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

In early January 2013, shortly before President Obama was about to take the Oath of Office for his second term, I spoke at a LERA meeting in which the panelists gave their advice to the new president. Of course, he wasn’t there to hear the wisdom of the session. So the fact that I presented five

recommendations and only one of them actually was implemented shouldn’t be a disappointment. However, it is of interest to ponder what might have happened if the various recommendations that were not followed instead had been.

By the way, dear reader, the LERA presentation of advice from 2013 – along with all of the informative and engaging PowerPoint slides – is available for viewing and listening on the web! Just click and on:

and use the player on that link. It will take about 21 minutes to hear and see the full presentation.

The first piece of advice presented was tactical and was based on collective bargaining, an institution with which LERA members are naturally familiar. I pointed out that collective bargaining is a repeat game and therefore any single negotiation will influence subsequent negotiations. In particular, if you get rolled in one negotiation (if you were too soft), you will have a hard time convincing your opposite number in the future that you will hang tough. You will have to invest in teaching the other side that there is a new you.

At the time – in my view – President Obama had been rolled in his dealings with Congress on government budgets (and shutdowns), debt ceilings, etc. Changing that stance would be difficult because of that past history, but it was worth an investment, I suggested. You can decide if that investment was made. My sense is that it wasn’t and that the deficiency showed up in other areas, too. Remember the line in the sand on chemical weapons use in Syria that was ignored when it was crossed? Remember Putin coming to the rescue by producing a face-saving deal with the Syrian government? Enough said.

Recommendation number 2 was to avoid over-reliance on opinion polling. Given the political polling meltdown in the recent presidential election, my observation about the fallibility of polling doesn’t seem – in hindsight – to be at all off base. Perhaps less reliance on pollsters and more information from the field would have suggested that the Hillary Clinton candidacy was a more tenuous proposition than the White House evidently thought. Had that information arrived, actions might have been undertaken that could have produced a different election result. Clinton’s loss is also Obama’s, since his legacy “Obamacare” program is likely to be dismembered.

Recommendation number 3 was to re-examine the entire federal economic data-gathering apparatus. My sense was that too many resources were going into theoretical manipulation of key indicators such as real GDP and the Consumer Price Index (CPI). No such re-examination occurred, however. Perhaps if it had occurred, better indicators might have been developed that would have highlighted the economic distress that had something to do with the Trump vote. For example, if the product quality improvement adjustments being built into the CPI and, thus, into “real” wages are excessive – maybe displaced workers don’t enjoy improvements in computers quite as much as someone thinks – perhaps the rustbelt’s labor market problems might have been better understood.

The fourth recommendation – the only one that clearly was followed (not due to my LERA presentation, of course!) - dealt with the Federal Reserve. To avoid being an issue in the 2012 election, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke announced that he did not want to be reappointed when his term expired. My recommendation was to find a pragmatist in the Bernanke mold and avoid appointing a monetarist. (Monetarists were convinced that the Fed’s responses to the earlier Great Recession were about to cause a roaring inflation – something that was implausible in 2012-2013 and never occurred during Obama’s second term.) The President subsequently appointed Janet Yellen, a pragmatist in the Bernanke mold.

Finally, the fifth observation dealt with the slow recovery from the Great Recession. I noted that while it is true empirically that recoveries from financial crises have tended to be slow and prolonged, that fact had built into it how economic policies responded to such crises in the past. Put another way, the past did not have to be prologue.

However, the idea that the slow recovery was just the way the natural law of the universe worked seemed to become the general opinion in Washington. Given Congressional gridlock, conventional fiscal stimulus was not on the table. My suggestion was, therefore, that dealing with the U.S. international trade imbalance would - as a byproduct - produce far more stimulus than the official stimulus program provided. And I provided a mechanism for bringing the trade balance to zero. I don’t have to tell you that nothing of the sort happened.

In view of the last election’s result, it is worth looking into the trade issue with political hindsight. When you look at the sectors of the economy that tend to employ blue collar workers – mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation, and utilities – you can see on the chart below that employment in these sectors has declined over a long period as a fraction of the total workforce.[1] It is also true that within these sectors, the decline occurred largely in the two sectors most exposed to international trade (mining and manufacturing).



As I have pointed out in prior musings, given the level of the trade imbalance and the now relatively small job base provided by the blue collar trade sector, a return to balanced trade would not produce a return to anything like the roughly one third of the workforce seen on the chart in the early 1970s. If that is someone’s standard of when America was great, we are not going back there. Maybe you might get employment in the blue collar sectors up to 20% (from the current 17%).

Such an increase in jobs isn’t nothing. But Trump supporters thinking that more could occur from renegotiated “great” trade deals are likely to be disappointed. Still, the chart also makes it obvious why trade is associated with rustbelt problems in the minds of those who now have less opportunity than they had in the past. The correlation is there, even if a one-to-one causation is not.

On the other hand, the fact is that even though dealing with the trade issue would not restore some Golden Age of blue collar employment, nothing of significance was being done to address trade directly. In particular, nothing of significance was being done about currency issues and the related Japanese and later Chinese mercantilism.

The 2016 election was close and the loser in fact got more popular votes than the winner. But might the results have been enough different if the trade issue in particular had been targeted as suggested? It would have provided more stimulus than the official stimulus program did and produced a faster recovery. And it would have responded to concerns about trade in “swing” states that in fact went unaddressed.

For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.’”


[1] Data are for the month of October of each year, seasonally adjusted. 

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