Take Back Our Party, Chapter 4: Our Democratic Party

By James Kwak

Ever since I finished Economism (and the 2016 elections, which happened about the same time), there has only been one thing I have wanted to write. I tried in “The Importance of Fairness: A New Economic Vision for the Democratic Party,” and in “A New Economic Vision, in 27 Words,” and again in “Hey Democrats, the Problem Isn’t Jobs and Growth.”

I wanted to write this thing because it has become clear to me not only that our economic world is screwed up in all sorts of obvious ways, but also that the only viable path to fixing it runs through the Democratic Party. The Republican Party is what it is; even if it weren’t currently in the grip of a madman, it would at best be the party of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, … you get the point. The 1% will always have their party. The problem is that the 99% don’t have theirs. The result has been the rightward drift of our entire political system, in which Republicans use their turns in power to advance their extremist agenda, and we Democrats use our at-bats to hold the line and nominate reasonable people to the Supreme Court.

So the important question is how the Democratic Party can be rallied behind a new economic vision that can both stem the rising tide of inequality and wrest control of the political landscape back from the conservatives. And that, of course, means we have to replace the economic vision of Clinton, Obama, Clinton, and most of the primary candidates today: the fantasy that private sector growth, aided by clever government nudges to make markets work better, can solve all problems for all people.

The working title of Take Back Our Party—the one I carried around in my head but was too embarrassed to tell people—was Manifesto of Our Democratic Party. (David Dayen eventually agreed with me that it was too presumptuous.) But they idea was very simple: They—the party establishment—have their Democratic Party; but we have a vision of a different Democratic Party. And ours is better. Hence the titles of Chapters 1 and 4.

Continue reading “Take Back Our Party, Chapter 4: Our Democratic Party”

Take Back Our Party, Chapter 3: Bad Politics

By James Kwak

Chapter 2 of Take Back Our Party made the case that the market-centric policies of the Democratic establishment have failed to do anything about—and in many cases have exacerbated—the rise of inequality. Chapter 3 continues the indictment, arguing that the “growth and opportunity” doctrine of Clinton and Obama has also failed as politics.

The New Democrats chose to identify themselves as the party of jobs and growth because they did not want to be seen as the party of redistribution and welfare. But in copying the Republican message of market-driven growth, they also lost the ability to differentiate themselves from those same Republicans. While conservatives promised that slashing regulations and cutting taxes would unleash the ingenuity of the private sector, the Democratic message was roundabout and equivocal: yes, markets are the source of prosperity, but sometimes they suffer from market failures, so cleverly designed government policies are required to make them work properly, etc. We may be right about the economics, but as politics it fails to establish a compelling choice.

But the bigger problem is that by not doing anything about inequality for so many years, the Democratic leadership frittered away the brand equity that the party had built up since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Once upon a time, lower-income voters assumed that, at least on economic issues, the Democratic Party stood for them. As Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama did little that was recognizably, specifically for workers, they stopped believing that the party cared about them. Which brought us to 2016, when Donald Trump vastly outperformed Mitt Romney among low-income voters.

For more, the entire chapter is up at The American Prospect, as usual.

The Crisis of the Democratic Establishment

By James Kwak

The Democratic Party is at a crossroads. On a host of issues, it is clear what we stand for and how we differ from the Republicans: minority rights, abortion, immigration, gun control, climate change, the importance of facts, and, of course, whether or not the president is above the law. On economic issues, however, the picture is not so clear. Elizabeth Warren’s speech at St. Anselm’s College on Thursday is an attempt to fix that problem—and also a shot across the bow of the Democratic elite. 

With each passing year, the widening gulf between the very rich and everyone else becomes more and more apparent. Even after ten years of economic expansion and with unemployment at historic lows, working-age adults in the bottom half of the income distribution make less than they did a full two generations ago, while the very rich now count their wealth with twelve digits instead of eleven. Yet the Democratic establishment insists that we must stay the course, and shared prosperity will be just around the corner. 

Elizabeth_Warren_Manchester_NH_October_2016
Elizabeth Warren campaigning for the Democratic establishment back in 2016 when everyone got along. Photo: Tim Pierce (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ever since the rise of the New Democrats in the 1980s and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the party’s power brokers have preached the gospel of “growth and opportunity.” (This is the story I tell in the first chapter of my new book, Take Back Our Party, available for free at The American Prospect.)  All good things come from the private sector; government’s role is to help markets function efficiently, create the conditions for private sector growth, and help people participate in those markets. Hence welfare reform, financial deregulation, and Obamacare, among other things. Hence also the intense, coordinated assaults on Bernie Sanders in 2016 and both Sanders and Warren today.

Continue reading “The Crisis of the Democratic Establishment”

Take Back Our Party, Chapter 2: Bad Policy

By James Kwak

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Today’s installment of my new book, Take Back Our Party, evaluates the quarter-century reign of the Clinton-Obama axis over Democratic economic policy. (Chapter 1, if you missed it, is a historical account of the rise of the New Democrats and what they did once in power.)

The picture is not a pretty one, no matter how you look at it. This chart, for example, shows the distribution of economic growth across different groups in the income distribution:

kwak-chart2.2 (2)

Continue reading “Take Back Our Party, Chapter 2: Bad Policy”

Take Back Our Party, Chapter 1

By James Kwak

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Chapter 1 of my new book is now available at The American Prospect. (If you missed the introduction, you can find all the chapters here as they are released).

This chapter, “Their Democratic Party,” is a brief history of the takeover of the party by the New Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s. It describes how, in the aftermath of the crushing electoral defeats of 1980 and 1984, a new generation of party leaders—including Bruce Babbitt, Chuck Robb, Lloyd Bentsen, and of course Bill Clinton and Al Gore—chose to run away from the historical Democratic legacy as the party of workers and the poor. Instead, they trailed in the rightward footsteps of the Republicans, associating the party with business, the private sector, finance, and economic growth.

Their economic platform was that markets are the sole source of prosperity and that government should limit itself to nurturing the private sector and ensuring that all people can participate in the benefits of growth. That’s why the principal Democratic domestic policy achievements of the past three decades have been welfare reform, financial deregulation, and a health care reform plan based on private competition and initially conceived by the Heritage Foundation.

This is still the dominant ideology of the Democratic establishment:

“Leaving aside the recent progressive insurrection … it is a party devoid of any compelling idea of how to address the fundamental economic challenges our country faces today: wage stagnation, the rising cost of health care and urban housing, the precariousness of most jobs, and extreme inequality. After defining themselves in opposition to old-fashioned government spending programs that smacked suspiciously of redistribution, after embracing the doctrine of market-based solutions, and after insisting for decades that economic growth would solve all problems, establishment Democrats today have nothing left to offer.”

Enjoy!

New Book — Completely Free!

By James Kwak

After Simon’s book with Jon Gruber earlier this year, it’s my turn to release a book. Take Back Our Party: Restoring the Democratic Legacy is now available starting today at The American Prospect. Actually, today the introduction is available. The remaining chapters will be released between now and Wednesday next week. As David Dayen (executive editor of the Prospect) said, now that we’re in the Second Gilded Age, we’re adopting one of the publishing models of the First Gilded Age: serialization in a magazine.

The book is a political sequel to Economism. The basic argument is that the Democratic Party has been taken over by market-oriented centrists who think that effective management of private sector markets is the best way to help ordinary people (think of welfare reform, financial deregulation, Obamacare, etc.); that they have failed, both as policy and as politics; and that the party should adopt an economic platform dedicated to ensuring that all people have the basic necessities of life in the twenty-first century, including healthcare, pre-K through college education, affordable housing, and adequate retirement income.

Enjoy!

Jump-Starting America

Can the United States grow faster, create more good jobs, and genuinely spread opportunity?

Yes: by investing more in science and technology, by placing those investments strategically around the country, and by creating an Innovation Dividend – paying cash to all Americans every year, based on the success of public investments in the tech sector.

What technologies should receive support?  Which cities have the potential to become the next generation tech hubs?  How do we ensure that benefits from the next tech boom are shared more broadly?

Join Jon Gruber and Simon Johnson in discussing their new book, Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream, in a series of events and media appearances around the country.

The first public event is on Tuesday, April 9, organized by Harvard Book Store and held at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA: http://www.harvard.com/event/jonathan_gruber_and_simon_johnson/

All are welcome!

Hey Democrats, the Problem Isn’t Jobs and Growth

It’s inequality.

By James Kwak

This American Life‘s forays into politics and economics are generally less satisfying than their ordinary storytelling fare. That’s especially true when they try to answer some specific question, like “What is wrong with the Democratic Party?”—the subject of a segment last month. The story did have some telling moments, however, most vividly when moderate Congresswoman Cheri Bustos was trying to pitch the party’s forgettable and already-forgotten “Better Deal” message (which she helped design) to a local newspaper. Here are a couple of excerpts. (The audio begins at 53:50, or you can read the transcript).

First, on jobs:

Cheri Bustos

We want to be in a position to help create 10 million good-paying, full-time jobs. There are still people hurting, and I think we need to acknowledge that and say that we want to do something about that.

Chuck Sweeney

Right. Well, Donald Trump says that, too. … He says exactly the same thing. Too many people are still out of work. You know, we need to do something about bringing back jobs.

And on Democratic support for cutting corporate taxes:

Cheri Bustos

And so as long as [the corporate tax rate is] highest in the world, we’re not going to have corporations who are going to bring that money home. So there’s got to be some incentive.

Chuck Sweeney

OK. I didn’t—see, I think, once again, I have no idea what the Democratic Party actually stands for anymore. I didn’t during the 2016 campaign, either, which is probably why it wasn’t the winning campaign.

Continue reading “Hey Democrats, the Problem Isn’t Jobs and Growth”

Tax Rates and Entrepreneurship

By James Kwak

My friend and co-founder Marcus Ryu wrote an op-ed in the Times today. Here’s how it begins:

The tax cut framework recently put forward by President Trump relies on a central claim: that reducing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals will open the wellsprings of entrepreneurship and investment, turbocharging job growth and the American economy. Were this premise true, reasonable people might countenance giving a vast majority of benefits to the very rich, as Mr. Trump’s plan does, in exchange for greater prosperity for all. But it’s not.

I don’t have a lot to add, since Marcus makes the case very well. I’ll just expand on two of his points. One is that lower tax rates do not actually encourage people to start companies. When we started our company in 2001, there were a lot of factors I considered: the risk of leaving a well-paying job in the middle of a recession; my simultaneous move across the country to a place without a lot of technology jobs; the difficulty of raising money from venture capital firms; the relatively large pool of talented developers looking for interesting jobs; the poor competition in the field we had chosen; the difficulty of saying “no” to Marcus; and so on. Tax rates weren’t on the list. As I like to say, I didn’t even know what the tax rate on capital gains (the one that matters for startup founders) was, so it’s hard to see how it could have had any effect on me.

The second point, which is only a bit more complicated, has to do with the impact of corporate tax rates on company behavior. One of the common arguments for a corporate tax cut is that it will encourage capital investment, which will create jobs. This happens, in theory, because a lower tax rate increases the after-tax value of corporate profits (technically speaking, expected future dividends) to shareholders. This means investors will pay more for the stock of what is otherwise the same corporation. For the most part, that just results in a one-time increase in the stock price in the secondary market, which has no direct impact on the company itself. The company only benefits if it issues new stock in a secondary offering, because it can raise a bit more cash for the same number of shares. As Marcus points out, however, a corporate tax cut can only increase investment if companies are actually having trouble raising capital, which has emphatically not been the case for the past several years. In other words, if we actually want to increase capital investment by U.S. corporations, lower tax rates are just about the last place where we should look. (Raising workers’ wages, to increase demand for the stuff those corporations sell, is probably a better place to start.)

I haven’t been writing about the Trump tax cut because (a) a bunch of personal reasons, (b) intellectually speaking, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, and (c) lots of other people with much bigger audiences are doing it anyway. So please read what Marcus has to say.

A New Economic Vision, in 27 Words

By James Kwak

A couple of weeks ago I posted a 6,000-word essay laying out a new economic vision for the Democratic Party. It kind of vanished into the ether, although Stephen Metcalf was kind enough to say this:

https://twitter.com/Metlandia/status/875682939912192000

So here it is, in 27 words:

All people need a few basic things:

  • An education
  • A job
  • A place to live
  • Health care
  • A decent retirement

Let’s make sure everyone has these things.

If you want more, there is always the long version.

The Importance of Fairness: A New Economic Vision for the Democratic Party

By James Kwak

A lot has been written recently about the direction of the Democratic Party. This is what I think.

I have been a Democrat my entire life. Today, the Democratic Party matters more than ever because it is the only organization currently capable, at least theoretically, of preventing the Republicans from turning the United States into a fully-fledged banana republic, ruled by and for a handful of billionaire families and corporate chieftains, with a stagnant economy and pre-modern levels of inequality. Yet I cannot find anything to disagree with in Senator Bernie Sanders’s assessment:

“The model the Democrats have followed for the last 10 to 20 years has been an ultimate failure. That’s just the objective evidence. We are taking on a right-wing extremist party whose agenda is opposed time after time and on issue after issue by the vast majority of the American people. Yet we have lost the White House, the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, almost two-thirds of the governors’ chairs and close to 900 legislative seats across this country. How can anyone not conclude that the Democratic agenda and approach has been a failure?”

A central shortcoming of the party is that, on economic issues, it has nothing to say to people trapped on the wrong side of our country’s growing inequality divide. Hillary Clinton won the “working class” (household income less than $50,000) vote, but by a much smaller margin than Barack Obama in 2012 or 2008—despite Donald Trump’s ardent efforts to alienate African-Americans and Latinos. Some people voted for Trump because of racism or misogyny. But Clinton was also flattened by Trump among voters who feel their financial situation was worse than a year before or who think that life will be worse for the next generation. She lost the Electoral College in the “rust belt” states of the Upper Midwest, whose economies have never fully recovered from the decline of American manufacturing.

The Democratic Party was once the party of working people. So why is it increasingly becoming the party of well-educated, socially tolerant, cosmopolitan city-dwellers? Because, in an age of stagnant median incomes and a disintegrating social safety net, Democrats have no economic message for the many people who are struggling to make ends meet, to pay for college, to stay in a home, or to save for retirement.

Continue reading “The Importance of Fairness: A New Economic Vision for the Democratic Party”

Economism and Arbitration Clauses

By James Kwak

As banking scandals go, Wells Fargo opening millions of new accounts for existing customers so that it could pump up its cross-selling metrics for investors is about as clear-cut as it gets. It’s up there with HSBC telling its employees how to get around U.S. regulations in order to launder money for drug cartels, or traders and treasury officials at several banks conspiring to fix LIBOR.

Holding Wells responsible, however, was a bit trickier. The bank agreed to restitution (i.e, refunding the fees it had collected from its customers for the phony accounts) and a paltry $185 million in fines. When customers sued for damages, however, Wells hid behind its mandatory arbitration clauses, which were so broadly written that they even applied to accounts that the customer never intended to exist and that the bank had fraudulently created. Wells eventually reached a settlement with the class of plaintiff customers, but the settlement amount was no doubt influenced by the bank’s ability to compel arbitration.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has proposed to eliminate the Wells Fargo defense by prohibiting class action waivers—clauses that take away customers’ right to participate in class action lawsuits—in arbitration clauses of financial contracts. (Class actions are crucial to deterring and punishing systematic fraud against consumers, because the harm to any single person will not be worth the expense of pursuing a lawsuit; without a class action, no one will sue, and the company will escape unharmed.)

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How Markets Work

By James Kwak

The Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the Republican health care plan, as passed in the House, is out. The bottom line is that many more people will lack health coverage than under current law—23 million by 2026—even though the bill allows states to relax the essential health benefits package, which should in theory attract younger, healthier people. This is not a surprise.

I just want to comment on the role of markets in all of this, which I think is not fully understood. For example, the Times article by the very up-to-speed Margot Sanger-Katz explains that the American Health Care Act of 2017 will make markets “dysfunctional.”

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This is consistent with the rosy view that many people, particularly centrist Democrats, have of health care: if we could only get markets to behave properly (correct for market failures, to use the jargon), everything would be great.

But that’s not how markets work.

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Fees Add Up

By James Kwak

Public pension funds are having a tough time. On the one hand, the average funding ratio (assets as a percentage of the present value of future obligations) is below 80% because of inadequate contributions by sponsors (states and municipalities) and poor investment returns since the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000. On the other hand, because pensions responded to low returns by shifting more of their money into hedge funds and private equity funds, a larger proportion of their assets is siphoned off as investment fees each year.

Unlike some people, I am not against hedge funds and private equity funds in principle. I think it’s highly likely that there are people who can beat the market on a sustained basis—particularly if they are people who are especially good with computers—both for theoretical reasons (someone has to be the first person to discover each relevant piece of information or actionable pattern) and empirical reasons (see Fama and French 2010, for example). Hedge funds have lagged the stock market in recent years, but what critics sometimes overlook is that they are supposed to trail the market in boom periods, because many target a beta of around 0.5. But I am mystified by the fact that, in what is supposed to be a highly competitive and innovative industry, the price of investing in a hedge fund has stayed virtually fixed at 2-and-20 (2% of assets, plus 20% of investment returns) for decades.

The consequences of these high prices are added up in The Big Squeeze, a new report sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers. Because true investment fees are usually not disclosed—fund managers insist that they are confidential and require investors not to divulge them—the report simply quantifies the potential savings from reducing fees from 1.8-and-18 to 0.9-and-9. This may seem arbitrary, but I know anecdotally that some funds, even big ones, are charging something like 1-and-10 even to ordinary investors. Since state pension funds are some of the biggest investors that exist, you would think they would be able to negotiate even lower fees.

Not surprisingly, the numbers involved add up quickly. Lower fees over the past five years would have saved the average pension fund included in the study $1.6 billion; to put things in perspective, it would have improved the aggregate funding ratio for these funds by more than two percentage points, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The important question is why high fees persist despite the potential market power of big pension funds. There are probably multiple explanations. One is a culture of secrecy, which makes it difficult for any fund to find out what other funds are paying. Another is the marketing prowess of fund managers, who are adept at explaining when their fund is unlike any other in the world and therefore merits its high fees. A third is that pension fund managers are playing with other people’s money (in this case, the other people are the fund’s beneficiaries—teachers, firefighters, and other government employees)—and may be more interested in ingratiating themselves with the asset management industry than with getting the best deal they can. (This is even more likely the case for the investment consultants who match pension funds with asset managers.) But in a political climate that makes tax increases on rich fund managers unlikely, state governments could achieve the same results by taking a harder line on investment management fees: requiring public disclosure of all fees or even imposing hard fee caps for pension fund investments. With the amount of money involved, it’s hard to imagine that major pension funds couldn’t find anyone competent to take their money for 0.9-and-9.

Soak the Poor, Feed the Rich

By James Kwak

After the dangerous clown show that has been the Trump White House, it’s comforting to return to some good, old-fashioned conservative policymaking: bashing the poor to cut taxes on the rich. I’m talking, of course, about the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Health care financing can sometimes seem like a complicated topic. Adverse selection, risk adjustment, blah blah blah. But it’s easy to understand the American Health Care Act or, as it is sure to be known, Trumpcare. In the medium term, financing policies have little effect on the price of health care. At most we can hope to “bend the [long-term] cost curve.” So health care policy essentially comes down to a single question: Who pays?

Continue reading “Soak the Poor, Feed the Rich”