Tax Cuts and American Jobs: Where will the Corporations Put Their Tax Savings?

SOURCE ITEMS

Imagine all enterprise functions automated by software and performed through a single point of access, which happens to be a virtual agent with cognitive capabilities. You can stop imagining and start thinking about the repercussions, because this is much closer than you may think.

I have not met a single CEO, from Deutsche Bank to JP Morgan, who said to me: ‘ok, this will increase our productivity by a huge amount, but it’s going to have social impact — wait, let’s think about it’.

George Anadiotis, Who’s automating the enterprise? Meet Amelia and the future of work, ZDNet, November 8, 2017.  Accessed November 8, 2017.

COMMENTS

In commenting on the proposed tax cuts for businesses in the U.S., numerous business analysts have pointed out that many global corporations have lots of cash on hand (much of it off shore) and that borrowing costs are very low.  If there were investment opportunities in the U.S. that promised a decent return, those corporations would be using that cash and borrowing capital.

Profits have been rising largely via cost cutting and swallowing up rivals rather than through the growing incomes of customers and clients.  Can workers in the U.S. really expect U.S. corporations to change investment strategies solely because their cash holdings overflow even more?

Even if the tax cuts went to U.S. consumers, the impact on investment strategies would be minimal – unless Trump succeeds in creating a U.S. market protected from imported consumer goods.  Tax cuts and automation are not the private domain of U.S. economic policy; Germany and China and all the other players can be expected to respond with their own investment incentives, so increased U.S. consumer spending would almost certainly distribute new investment across the world economy, resulting in more automation, more global displacement of working people, more profits, more wealth inequality, and more damage to the natural environment.

It is worth noting one more thing from the article cited above.  Business operations can now be automated very quickly, much more quickly than underfunded retraining programs can retrain workers and return them to work.  This mismatch between the speed of business innovation and the speed of government responses to worker displacement and income losses will only get worse.

My Book on the Future of Work is now Available for Your Enjoyment

The Future of Work in the Inclusive World Economy is posted to my website.  Click this link to view and print the book in PDF format: https://iweworkfutures.org/book-download/.

The timing for posting my book is not bad.  Gallup just published a major study of the slowdown in economic growth in the U.S., “U.S. Economy: No Recovery”,  and Robert J. Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War, has been getting lots of attention.  Yet, Donald Trump is vowing to buck the U.S. economic growth slowdown and a lot of economists will try to help him do it.  Elsewhere in the world, new leaders are making the same promises.  We have not had such a real world battle of economic policy ideas in a very long time.

Paradigm Premises and Insights into Stagnating Global Economic Growth

SOURCE ITEMS

Why does political instability afflict Europe and the United States? The answer is that just as the great transformation of the world economy between 1850 and 1890 generated political instability, so too does the globalization of the present era. In addition, the second great transformation of the world economy is larger than the first, and thus, not surprisingly, generates greater churn. … Those countries able to keep unemployment and inequality within bounds will be more stable. The greater the levels of inequality and unemployment, the greater the political instability and the smaller the chance of achieving stable economic growth.

David W. Brady, Globalization and Political Instability, The American Interest, March 8 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016.

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Political instability reduces the likelihood of defining and implementing a reasonably comprehensive, coherent, and sustained economic-policy agenda. The resulting persistence of low growth, high unemployment, and rising inequality fuels continued political instability and fragmentation, which further undermines officials’ capacity to implement effective economic policies.

Michael Spence and David Brady, Economics in a Time of Political Instability, Project Syndicate, March 23, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016.

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We tend to focus on the problem of the moment — the subprime crisis, the euro crisis, the China slowdown, the oil bust. But surely these events are connected. What threads link them? I’ve been collecting possible story lines for a while now. … Put these all together, and what do you get? A Great Muddle, perhaps. Some stories overlap. At least two of them contradict each other. They don’t all add up to any kind of consistent narrative.

Justin Fox, Eight Story Lines Explain the Global Economic Crisis, BloombergView, March 10, 2016, Accessed March 24, 2016.

COMMENTS

Statements about what can be done and should be done in a particular arena of human activity rest on foundation premises about how that part of our world works. These premises establish a paradigm for gathering and interpreting data about the world. They pull certain things into view and push other things out of view.

Professor Brady says we are in an era of transformation in the world economy.   Everyone knows that things are changing rapidly and in big ways and Brady is far from alone in concluding that a transformation is underway. This is an important development because the term transformation connotes change that reaches past surface phenomena, change that runs deep into the machinery of a system.

Such deep-running change often exposes weaknesses in a paradigm that worked well in the past. This is the case for theories of economic growth.

The field of economics is in turmoil because of the unpredicted crisis of 2008 and the persisting economic growth stagnation. In the search for answers, the paradigmatic premise that humans act rationally is now widely questioned. But, other premises should be getting more attention.

One premise worth questioning is that systemic continuity is a given. This premise is embraced across the fields of economics and politics. It is reflected in two assertions that are widely made and widely accepted.

The first is that this time is really not different. Although a few economists have argued that the financial crisis of 2008 is unusual, the dominant view is that it is not fundamentally different from numerous other financial crises in the history of capitalism. Brady affirms this view by comparing the transformation of the world economy in our time to the transformation in the 19th century. He sees it as more destabilizing, but not fundamentally different. After the transformation has played itself out, life can return to what we call normal.

The second assertion is that government policy interventions can restore world economic growth. In the past, economic growth has stagnated and stalled, but in every case it was sooner or later restored. Now is no different. By adopting the appropriate economic policies, governments can restore economic growth to levels that restore full employment and steadily increase human wealth and well-being.

The concepts of transformation and systemic continuity do not sit together well. This is a telling juxtaposition to which economists should be giving more attention. Perhaps as I have been arguing in this blog, it isn’t bad policies that are limiting global economic growth; perhaps it is existential limits to economic growth that make all policy interventions fall short.

Perhaps economists, including Brady himself, should set aside the premise of continuity and explore all the implications of applying the concept of transformation to our current circumstances.

Economists are Still Dragging Their Analytic Feet

But right now I’m stuck. I have no idea how the United States economy is doing. And the closer I look at the data, the more contradictory it looks. … Yeah, but what happened in 2008 was a once-a-century kind of storm. If you always think that the big one is imminent, most of the time you’ll turn out to be wrong.

Neil Irwin, Is the Economy Really in Trouble? A Debate, New York Times, October 30, 2015.

 COMMENTS

Yes, but why would anyone, especially an economist, think that the once-a-century kind of storm rule still holds for economic matters. This century is unlike any other century before it, in so many ways. For the first time in human history, virtually every inhabitant on the planet is connected to every other inhabitant through commodity markets, communications systems, transportation systems, and a global financial system.

If economic theories and models can still be applied in any valid way, they can only be applied to the single world economy. National governments exist, nation boundaries exist, but national economies do not exist, except as ghosts of their former selves.  If an economy is a system that produces and distributes wealth, then it is glaringly apparent that the economic activities found within a national boundary do not constitute an economy.

To get un-stumped, economists must abandon the ghosts of economies past.  What’s keeping them stuck with an analytic approach that is a century behind the times?

Supply Chains, Productivity, and Economic Growth: The Global Context for Understanding U.S. Employment Growth

SOURCE ITEMS

Canada’s gross domestic product contracted for a second quarter in the three months through June, a Sept. 1 report will show, according to almost all economists in a Bloomberg survey. The economy probably shrank by 1 percent, even worse than the 0.6 percent first-quarter drop.

“When Canada hurts, U.S. exporters do, too,” Bricklin Dwyer, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York, wrote in an Aug. 27 note to clients titled “Canada (not China) matters more.”

Jeanna Smialek, Uh-oh, Canada. China Pales as a Risk to U.S. Growth, BloombergBusiness, August 28, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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Moody’s Investors Service has revised downward its forecast for GDP growth in the G20 economies to 2.8% next year, from 3.1%. Moody’s says that the revision mainly reflects the impact of a more marked slowdown now forecast in China and more prolonged negative effects of low commodity prices on G20 producers than earlier expected.

Moody’s has slightly revised downwards its GDP growth forecast for China in 2016 to 6.3%, from 6.5% previously. Recently published economic indicators show that China’s slowdown in exports and investment has continued into Q3 2015. In addition, signs that employment growth is weakening point to a more marked and broadly-based deceleration in the Chinese economy than previously expected.

Moody’s revises forecast for G20 economies’ growth downwards to 2.8% in 2016, Press Release, Moody’s Investors Service, August 28, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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International production fragmentation, in which manufacturing or services activities done at home are combined with those performed abroad, has now taken centre stage. This represents a major point of departure from the so-called “Fordist” production system – exemplified by the American automobile industry – where all economic activity was organised within a single firm located on one site or in close proximity (Feenstra 1998).

Increasingly, firms across advanced and developing countries add value along these global supply chains by completing a specific task associated with the production of a finished product and then exporting it. This may be an important part or component required in the production of a good. It may even be a service that is a vital intermediate input in further production.

Albert Park, Gaurav Nayyar and Patrick Low, Supply Chain Perspectives and Issues: A Literature Review, Part I, World Trade Organization, 2013. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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I prefer to date the slowdown in productivity growth from the end of 2010 because productivity growth (in the nonfarm business sector) averaged a bountiful 2.6% per annum from mid-1995 through the end of 2010, but only a paltry 0.4% since. Other scholars prefer earlier break points. For example, productivity growth averaged 2.9% from mid-1995 through the end of 2005, but only 1.3% since.

Either way, the drop is large, and the scary thing is that we don’t understand why.

Alan S. Blinder, The Mystery of Declining Productivity Growth, The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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In advanced economies, where plenty of sectors have both the money and the will to invest in automation, growth in productivity (measured by value added per employee or hours worked) has been low for at least 15 years. And, in the years since the 2008 global financial crisis, these countries’ overall economic growth has been meager, too – just 4% or less on average.

Hence the question on the minds of politicians and economists alike: Is the productivity slowdown a permanent condition and constraint on growth, or is it a transitional phenomenon?

Michael Spence, Automation, Productivity, and Growth, Project Syndicate, August 26, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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This paper offers an integrated analysis of outsourcing, offshoring, and foreign direct investment within a systems view of international business. This view takes the supply chain rather than the firm as the basic unit of analysis. It argues that competition in the global economy selects supply chains that maximise the joint profit of all the firms in the chain. The systems view is compared with the firm-centred view commonly used in strategy literature. The paper shows that a firm’s strategy must be embedded within an efficient supply-chain strategy, and that this strategy must be negotiated with, rather than imposed upon, other firms.

From the Abstract, Mark Casson & Nigel Wadeson, The Economic Theory of International Supply Chains: A Systems View, International Journal of the Economics of Business, Volume 20, Issue 2, 2013. Accessed August 27, 2015.

COMMENTS

Most economists explain a slowdown in a nation’s economic growth in terms of stagnant productivity growth. Yet it is seriously questionable whether such a thing as the productivity of a nation is a meaningful statistic at this late date in the development of the world economy.

Global supply chains now distribute production processes across multiple nations. Even the local bakery is, even if unwittingly, often part of supply chains that transcends national borders. The development of the global supply chain system has reached such a level of maturity that some researchers argue that the supply chain, not the individual firm, is the key competitive unit in the world economy.

The implications for measuring productivity seem obvious. If the competitive unit is a supply chain, then it is the productivity of a supply chain as a whole that is relevant to economic growth. If supply chains cross national boundaries, then measuring the productivity of only the part that is within a national boundary will obscure the positive or negative impact on total supply chain productivity of the “foreign” firms in the supply chain. The competitive position of the supply chain will not be correctly understood.

In the aggregate, measuring the productivity of a nation’s firms rather than the productivity of the supply chains in which the nation’s firms operate will lead economists and policy makers to misunderstand their nation’s prospects for economic growth. That, in turn, will lead to misguided expectations about employment and wage growth.

Today’s Strengths are Tomorrow’s Weaknesses; Today’s New Hires are Tomorrow’s New Unemployed

In an a single world economy with decentralized policy making, stability for a nation’s economy is not achievable.

SOURCE ITEMS

Cutbacks in demand from overseas customers and domestic energy producers led to the weakest growth in new orders since May 2013, prompting U.S. factories to slow the rate of hiring. At the same time, manufacturing is being underpinned by sustained spending from American consumers who are enjoying low prices at the gas pump.

Bloomberg News, Manufacturing in U.S. Expands at Slowest Pace in a Year, Bloomberg, March 2, 2015.

COMMENTS

Back in the Fall of 2014, economists hailed the strong dollar as evidence of a strong U.S. economy and only whispered warnings about the potential for lost foreign demand for U.S. goods. Similarly, they have hailed the shift in consumer spending that low oil prices allow, but only whisper warnings about the resulting job losses in the energy related industries.

Economists completely ignore the fact that a very large proportion of consumer goods that we American’s buy are produced abroad.  This matters because whatever job growth we get from the shifts from buying gasoline and heating oil to buying furniture, electronic goods, and trinkets will mostly be in lower-wage retail, not in higher-wage production. Moreover, when fuel prices begin to rise again, as they will, consumer spending will shift back into heating oil and gasoline, destroying the retail jobs that were so recently created and restoring jobs in energy industries.

Economists tell us that we have entered a period of positive economic trends; they have been doing this almost every year since the financial crisis of 2008. It’s wishful analysis because economic instability and volatility are build into the institutional structure of world economy.  So, if you just got a new job, don’t count on it lasting.

Diverging Nations, U.S. Employment Prospects: A Matter of Interpretation

SOURCE ITEMS

The economy grew at a sizzling 5% annual pace in the third quarter of last year. And more than 1.5 million jobs were created from June to November, the best six-month stretch since 1999-2000.

With that momentum, combined with falling gasoline prices, 2015 is likely to be a good year, notwithstanding Monday’s stock market sell-off.

The Editorial Board, More jobs is not enough: Our view, USA Today, January 5, 2015.

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In the coming year, “divergence” will be a major global economic theme, applying to economic trends, policies, and performance. As the year progresses, these divergences will become increasingly difficult to reconcile, leaving policymakers with a choice: overcome the obstacles that have so far impeded effective action, or risk allowing their economies to be destabilized.

Fortunately, there are ways to ensure that 2015’s divergences do not lead to economic and financial disruptions. Indeed, most governments – particularly in Europe, Japan, and the US – have the tools they need to defuse the rising tensions and, in the process, unleash their economies’ productive potential.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, A Year of Divergence, Project Syndicate, December 8, 2014.

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Taken together, the average 10-year bond yield of the U.S., Japan and Germany has dropped below 1 percent for the first time ever, according to Steven Englander, global head of G-10 foreign-exchange strategy at Citigroup Inc.

That’s not good news. The rock-bottom rates, which fall below zero when inflation is taken into account, show “that investors think we are going nowhere for a long time,” Englander wrote in a report yesterday.

Simon Kennedy, Free Money in Bond Markets Shows Global Economy Still Struggling, Bloomberg, January 6, 2015.

COMMENTS

One can explain the divergence among nations in terms of autonomous national economies in which global economic growth is nothing more than the sum of the growth of national economies. The economic growth divergence among nations is a function of differing national policy approaches, some correct, most incorrect (since most economies are either stagnating or growing well below rates economists deem achievable). If only all nations of the world adopted correct policies, all would be growing in harmony and at a rapid clip.

The alternative is to see what is called the U.S. economy as only a component of the world economy as a whole. The world economy is the only actual economic system and there is only one economic growth rate – the growth rate of the world economy as a whole. National policies have some effect on the global rate of economic growth, but much less effect than is commonly thought. Global parameters (such as resource and ecological limits, transportation bottlenecks, commodity price volatility, climate volatility, and institutional limits to global demand growth) have much more impact.

The economic growth divergence among nations is much less a matter of good and bad national policies than a matter of the impact of the interactions among various and changing national policies on the distribution of global economic growth among the world’s geopolitical population groups.

The interpretative difference is enormously important. The first interpretation suggests that the U.S. rate of growth did not increase in 2014 at the expense of economic growth in Europe, China, Brazil and other nations. It further suggests that the higher U.S. rate of economic growth is sustainable almost regardless of the courses of action taken by other nations (just as long as the U.S correctly modifies its policies in response to those other national courses of action).

The second suggests that a convergence can only take place through an alignment of national policies that produces a different distributional outcome for growth in the world economy. In such a scenario, the growth rates of the U.S. (and China) would have to fall so that the growth rates of the stagnating nations could rise. Given the lack of powerful global political institutions and the very low level of geopolitical cooperation (compared to the high level of economic integration in the world economy), a struggle among nations that is heated and dangerous is the likely scenario for a long time to come.

The implications for U.S. employment are obvious. Job growth in recent months should be seen as precarious. Our policy commitments to market freedom and investor dominance in economic matters puts job creation at the mercy of global economic growth volatility and divergence. At the moment U.S. workers are somewhat on the beneficial side of volatility and divergence. That will almost surely change.