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Rebuttal to the Washington Post: The True Economic State

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Whether one agrees with Donald Trump’s economic policies or not, the state of economy he will inherit needs to be clarified. A recent article by the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell stated as one of her main theses that Trump will inherit a strong and vibrant economy. While other aspects of the article make interesting points, the premise upon which the article’s foundation lies upon is mistaken. The economy that is being handed to President-elect Trump is not in the most favorable conditions as claimed by the article, it is actually the contrary.

In 2008, one of the greatest recession in modern history struck the US and the world. This economic disaster occurred in the last year of the Bush administration as the Obama administration was coming into power. While President Obama inherited the economic disaster and attempted to remedy it, all he has done, similar to his predecessor, is further conceal the root cause of the issue. Despite what Mrs. Rampell claimed as economic success by the Obama administration is anything but success.

The economic conditions presented to the President-elect are not favorable, nor was the economic conditions provided to President Obama. A long understood political maxim has been that the president cannot directly affect the economy, but that has not been the case in the last decade or so. The economy has been sitting on a bubble for a long time. Just like anything, all good things must come to an end. The prosperity under the Clinton years was due to for a recession but was dampened by the Bush administration’s famous tax cuts and other detrimental economic policies. But such meddling could only go so far before coming to an end, which it did in 2008. Even though that would have been the panacea to the economic travails, the Obama administration began to implement a series of government interventions that has helped delay the inevitable, a major recession.

In order to understand why the Washington Post article is incorrect, a review of the main arguments is needed. The article puts forth the following arguments:

2/3 of Trump’s supporters don’t believe government data.

A Gallup Poll found that 2/3 of all Americans do not believe what the mainstream media reports. Another poll found that 81% of all Americans do not trust the government. So despite painting a picture of Trump supporters believing in tin-foil hat theories, which some perhaps do, the country as a whole, liberal or conservative, is tired of what they see as misinformation, such as this Washington Post piece.

The unemployment rate is 4.6%, which President Obama can claim credit for. Anything around 5% or lower is considered full employment but to think of economy as fully employed is misleading. Even though the unemployment rate has been falling since 2008, there are two things not being discussed. The government performs mathematical voodoo and the Obama administration is not the first, it goes back many presidencies. A cognitive dissonance exists amongst the people who use government statistics to claim the country is fully employed yet ignore the other bits of information that exists. There is the U-6 unemployment rate, which accounts for those working part-time but desiring full time work and those who desire work but could not find it. The rate is more than twice the supposed unemployment rate, so how can it be claimed that the economy in great condition when the data says otherwise? Furthermore, the unemployment rate also declines because people are no longer seeking work; therefore that figure in itself is not a true indicator of an economic recovery. It is better to review the labor participation rate in order to comprehend the actual status of the economy. The participation rate hovered at a high of 66% prior to the Great Recession. Since then it has been on a downward trend, currently hovering right below 63%.

While real wages have increased in the last several months, the data set is not an accurate one used to demonstrate the true purchasing power of Americans. Instead what should be reviewed is the real median household income. This has not reached the highs of the late 1990s. This indicator is still trending downwards.

Gas prices should never be used as an indicator of economic prosperity. A president does not control the price of gas; rather it is determined by energy markets as well as the largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia. Current oil prices are low and being kept artificially low by Saudi Arabia supposedly for an array of reason.

The stock market continues to reach new highs. The reason for this continued growth in the last several years has been due to quantitative easing and near zero interest rate. With more $12 trillion dollars printed, nearly $10 trillion in negative-yielding global bonds, and more than 650 interest rate cuts since 2008, the market has been artificially pumped to these new highs and will not sustain. Unfortunately, when the crash occurs, it will have to compensate and will do so in a very detrimental way.

One of the greatest overlooked factors that have not been accounted for is the quality of jobs. In the decade since the Great Recession, most of the jobs created have been service jobs rather than skilled and manufacturing jobs. This is an important indicator that should be accounted for in determining the robustness of an economy. Skilled jobs are vital in ensuring a healthy middle class, which is essential to any democracy. Yet the US economy has transformed since the Great Recession into a 1099 or uber economy. This does not bode well for the future.

While Trump’s plan for an infrastructure overhaul might help alleviate some of the economic toil, it is nothing more than another bandage for a much larger issue. A recession is inevitable; it will come when nobody knows perhaps next year or in four years. But unlike any other recession, this will be worse than the 2008 recession. Similar to Trump’s claim of draining the swamp, the economy has needed draining for the past couple of decades. Perhaps this will happen under the Trump presidency, maybe not. But it should be known that it is not Trump’s economic policies per se that will lead to the next great recession, he may be able to delay it or expedite this collapse but it will not be as a result of him. It is a long time coming and has been only exacerbated by President Obama and his predecessors.

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Economy

Portugal’s crisis management: “Economic patriotism” should not be tied to ideological beliefs

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The economic policy of the Hungarian government has provoked fierce criticism in the last decade, as it deviated from the neoliberal mainstream and followed a patriotic path, putting Hungarian interests in the foreground. While many link this style of political economy to the conservative position of the Orbán-government, in Portugal, a left-wing administration followed a similarly patriotic line to overcome the symptoms of the Eurozone crisis, showcasing that economic patriotism is not tied to ideologies, but is merely responsible thinking.

The catastrophic path of austerity

According to the theory of austerity, the government by implying austerity measures, “puts its finances in order”, hence the state does not become indebted and consequently investors’ confidence in the economy returns. However, if we think about what we really mean by austerity (tax increases, wage cuts, budget constraints, etc.), even the theory itself sounds counterproductive. Not surprisingly, this theoretical counter productivity has been demonstrated in practice in several cases.

One of the best examples is the case of Portugal, which along with Greece and other Southern-European nations was probably hit the hardest by the financial crunch. While all of the “GIPS” (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) entered a steer recession, Portugal somehow managed to overcome it more successfully than its regional peers, but before that, it felt the bitter taste of neoliberal structural reforms.

Although the case of Portugal was not as traumatic as the ones of its Southern-European counterparts, in order to keep its debt under control, stabilize its banks and introduce “growth-friendly” reforms, Lisbon negotiated a € 78 billion bailout package in 2011, in exchange for a rigid austerity program aimed at the 2011-2014 period, orchestrated by the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB), the infamous “Troika”.

The neoliberal recipe did not differ much from that of Greece, and the then ruling Passos Coelho conservative government faithfully followed the structural reforms demanded by the “group of three”: working hours increased, number of bank holidays fell, holiday bonuses were abolished, wages and pensions have also been cut by 20 per cent, while public spending on health and education was drastically cut, and due to escalating privatizations, public assets have also been sold off quickly.

Despite the fact that by 2014 the country’s budget deficit as a share of the GDP had fallen to 4.5 per cent from the staggering11.2 per cent recorded in 2011 and the current account showed a surplus – as domestic demand fell apart, forcing companies to export –Portugal was still on the brink of social and economic collapse.

Public debt soared to more than 130 per cent of the GDP, tens of thousands of businesses went bankrupt, unemployment rose to 17 per cent and skyrocketed to 40 per cent amongst the youth. As a result, many talented Portuguese fled abroad, with an estimated 150,000 nationals emigrating in a single year.

The post-2015 turnaround

Things only began to change in 2015, when the Portuguese elected Anotnio Costa as Prime Minister, who was the mayor of Lisbon under the years of the crunch. Shortly after his election, Merkel encouraged the center-left politician to follow the neoliberal prescription proposed by the “Troika”, while her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, underlined that Portugal would make a “serious mistake” if it decided not to follow the neoliberal doctrine and would eventually be forced to negotiate another rescue package.

Not being intimidated by such “threats”, Costa ditched austerity without hesitation, restored working hours, cut taxes and raised the minimum wage by 20 percent in the course of just two years. Obviously, his unpopular position made him crush with Brussels, as his government allowed the budget deficit to reach 4.4 per cent, compared to the agreed 2.7 per cent target. However, in May 2016, the Commission granted Costa another year to comply, and since then Portugal has consistently exceeded its deficit targets.

Tourism also largely assisted the post-15 recovery, to which the government placed great emphasis, so that in 2017 the number of visitors rose to a record high, reaching 12.7 million. Concurrently, Portugal has significantly improved the international reputation of its businesses and products, which contributed to increasing the country’s export revenues and attracting foreign investment.

Furthermore, Costa has raised social spending and at the same time planned to invest state revenues in transport, environmental infrastructure and energy, initiatives that could be extremely beneficial, as they would not only significantly improve the country’s sustainability, but also boost job creation, something that yet again indicates how important public investment is to an economy.

Additionally, Portugal has become an undervalued tech-hub, with plenty of start-ups offering good employment opportunities in addition to fostering innovation. The government with several initiatives, seeks to create a business-friendly ecosystem for them, under which they can thrive and boost the economy to the largest extent. It is thus not surprising, that Portugal has been the fastest growing country in Europe when it comes to the number of programmers.

Finally, one of the Costa’s top priorities, has been to lure back emigrated Portuguese who moved abroad during the crisis. To this end, tax cuts are offered to Portuguese citizens who choose to return home.

In a sum, since Costa stepped into office, Portugal has undergone a rapid recovery: economic growth has returned, unemployment has fallen radically, the public debt was also set on a downgrading path, while the budget remained well-balanced despite the increased spending, with Costa himself explaining that “sound public accounts are compatible with social cohesion”. Even Schäuble acknowledged Portugal’scrisis management, by actually calling Mário Centeno – the finance minister of the Costa government – the “Cristiano Ronaldo” of finance ministers.

Of course, not everything is bright and wonderful, as the country has emerged from a large crisis, the effects of which cannot be eliminated in just a few years. Public debt is still amongst the highest in the EU and several other challenges lie ahead for the South-European nation, especially by taking into consideration that the world economy just entered yet another crisis.

Furthermore, according to many, it was not Costa who led the recovery, but Portugal passively benefited from a strong recovery in Europe, falling oil prices, an explosion in tourism and a sharp drop in debt repayment costs. Indeed, it has to be taken into account that Portugal entered the recession in a relatively better position than many of its spatial counterparts and the relatively high quality of its domestic institutional infrastructure and policy-adaptation capacity aided the previous government to efficiently complete the memorandum of understanding (MoU) as early as 2015. Nevertheless, this is not a sufficient reason to discredit the post-2015 government’s efforts and justify the harsh austerity measures implied by the Troika. Taking into account that austerity never really provided decent results, it becomes evident that Costa’s policies were quite effective.

Economic patriotism should not be connected to ideologies

While in the case of Hungary and Poland “economic patriotism” has been fiercely criticized despite its prosperous results, this spite tendency has been an outcome of strong politicization in economic policy analysis. Even though the political context is verily important, it is also crucial to interpret economic policy independently, in order to take away valuable lessons and identify mistakes. Political bias is not a fortunate thing, as it is absolute and nullifies debate and hence development.

The case of Portugal is a perfect example, as it provides sound evidence, that a patriotic economic policy can be exercised by governments from all across the political spectrum and that the notion should not be connected to political and ideological beliefs. The left-wing Costa-government with its policy-making demonstrated that a solution always exists and that requires a brave, strong and decisive government, that pursues its own plan in the interests of the ‘patrie’, regardless of its positioning.

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The Question Of Prosperity

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Galloping economic woes, prejudice, injustice, poverty, low literacy rate, gender disparity and women rights, deteriorating health system, corruption, nepotism, terrorism, political instability, insecure property rights, looming energy crisis and various other similar hindrances constrain any state or country to be retrograded. Here questions arise that how do these obstacles take place? How do they affect the prosperity of any country? No history, geography, or culture spawns them. Simply the answer is institutions that a country possesses.

Institutions ramify into two types: inclusive and extractive. Inclusive political institutions make power broadly distributed in country or state and constrain its arbitrary exercise. Such political institutions also make it harder for others to usurp rights and undermine the cornerstone of inclusive institutions, which create inclusive economic institutions that feature secure property rights, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provide a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also permits the entry of new businesses and allow people to choose their career. On the contrary, extractive political institutions accord clout in hands of few narrow elite and they have few constrains to exert their clout and engineer extractive economic institutions that can specifically benefit few people of the ruling elite or few people in the country.

Inclusive institutions are proportional to the prosperity and social and economic development. Multifarious countries in the world are great examples of this. Taking North and South Korea; both countries garnered their sovereignty in same year 1945, but they adopted different ways to govern the countries. North Korea under the stewardship of Kim Il-sung established dictatorship by 1947, and rolled out a rigid form of centrally planned economy as part of the so-called Juche system; private property was outlawed, markets were banned, and freedoms were curtailed not only in marketplace but also in every sphere of North Korea’s lives- besides those who used to be part of the very small ruling elite around Kim Il-sung and later his son and his successor Kim Jong-Il. Contrariwise, South Korea was led and its preliminary politico-economic institutions were orchestrated by the Harvard and Princeton-educated. Staunchly anticommunist Rhee and his successor General Park Chung-Hee secured their places in history as authoritarian presidents, but both governed a market economy where private property was recognised. After 1961, Park effectively taken measures that caused the state behind rapid economic growth; he established inclusive institutions which encouraged investment and trade. South Korean politicians prioritised to invest in most crucial segment of advancement that is education. South Korean companies were quick to take advantage of educated population; the policies encouraged investment and industrialisation, exports and the transfer of technology. South Korea quickly became a “Miracle Economy” and one of the most rapidly growing nations of the world. Just in fifty years there was conspicuous distinction between both countries not because of their culture, geography, or history but only due to institutions both countries had adopted.

Moreover, another model to gauge role of institutions in prosperity is comparison of Nogales of US and Mexico. US Nogales earn handsome annual income; they are highly educated; they possess up to the mark health system with high life expectancy by global standards; they are facilitated with better infrastructure, low crime rate, privilege to vote and safety of life. By contrast, the Mexican Nogales earn one-third of annual income of US Nogales; they have low literacy rate, high rate of infant mortality; they have roads in bad condition, law and order in worse condition, high crime rate and corruption. Here also the institutions formed by the Nogales of both countries are main reason for the differences in economic prosperity on the two sides of the border.

Similarly, Pakistan tackles with issues of institutions. Mostly, pro-colonial countries are predominantly inheritors of unco extractive politico-economic institutions, and colonialism is perhaps germane to Pakistan’s tailoring of institutions. Regretfully, Pakistan is inherited with colossally extractive institutions at birth. The new elite, comprising civilian-military complex and handful aristocrats, has managed to prolong colonial-era institutional legacy, which has led Pakistan to political instability, consequently, political instability begot inadequacy of incentives which are proportional to retro gradation of the country.

Additionally, a recent research of Economic Freedom of the World (WEF) by Fraser Institute depicts that the countries with inclusive institutions and most economic freedom are more developed and prosperous than the least economic free countries; countries were divided into four groups. Comparing most free quartile and least free quartile of the countries, the research portrayed that most free quartile earns even nine times more than least free quartile; most free quartile has two times more political and civil rights than least free quartile; most free quartile owes three times less gender disparity than least free quartile; life expectancy tops at 79. 40 years in most free quartile, whereas number stands at 65.20 in least free quartile. To conclude this, the economic freedom is sine quo non for any country to be prosperous, and economic freedom comes from inclusive institutions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has managed to get place in least free quartile.

In a nutshell, the institutions play pivotal role in prosperity and advancement, and are game changer for any country. Thereby, our current government should focus on institutions rather than other issues, so that Pakistan can shine among the world’s better economies. For accomplishing this highly necessary task government should take conducive measures right now.

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Taxing The Super-Rich To Help The Poor

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What was traditional became law in 1941 when Thanksgiving was designated as the fourth Thursday in November.  Large turkeys, plenty of trimmings and family gatherings became the norm. . . that is until this year of the self-isolated holiday.  Small turkeys disappeared fast leaving masses of 20 lb birds and presumably more leftovers and more waste.  Yes, w e belong to the lucky 13.5 percent in this world through an accident of birth.

Half of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 per day.  Of these, three quarters of a billion are in extreme poverty, classified as less than $1.90 per day.  Covid 19 has swelled these numbers by 114 million and the situation is dire.  Worst affected by poverty are the day laborers i.e. informal workers without a regular job.  Moreover, the ILO (International Labor Organization) estimates 200 million job losses from Covid.  It also notes that the average income of informal workers in places like Ethiopia, Haiti, and Malawi has already fallen by 82 percent. 

The US is not immune.  Adjusting for purchasing power the US Census Bureau classifies 11.1 percent of the population as poor with Covid exacerbating the situation.  Forty seven million have to rely on food banks including 16 million children.  Hardly surprising then that the US has the highest child mortality rate among the 20 OECD countries (major economies) as reported by the U.S. Health Affairs journal.  And life expectancy has shrunk by three years, affirms the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Even in Europe with its social net and social conscience, Covid 19 is estimated to increase poverty by about half if the pandemic lasts until the summer of 2021.  Italy alone, forecasts Caritas Italiana, will have a million more children living in poverty. 

In April of this year UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) warned that at least $2.5 billion was needed to lessen the impact of the impending crisis within the narrow purview of their remit. 

So where is the money to come from?  If taxing the rich is unlikely to pass in most legislatures for the most obvious of reasons — they paid for them to be there — how about taxing only the super-rich, the storied 1 percent?

The wealth of the billionaire class has surged.  While 45.5 million filed for unemployment in just three months, the U.S. added 29 more billionaires and the wealth of the billionaire class surged nearly 20 percent or $584 billion, from $2.948 to $3.531 trillion, during the same period.  Just the top five billionaires, namely, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison increased their wealth by a whopping $101.7 billion between March 18 and June 17 of this year.  Bezos and Zuckerberg alone made $76 billion or almost three-quarters.  To be fair one has to point out that the stock market took a sudden dip in March from which it recovered to new highs. 

It’s shocking that just 10 percent of their $584 billion gain would have bailed out their compatriots classified as poor over the same period.  Is it time for a tax on the super rich?  Warren Buffett has often said that he needs to be taxed more.  The fact is a small extra tax would not make an iota of difference in their lives but would help out millions of the poor and also the economy because the latter are much more likely than the rich to spend the money.  

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