(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Why Trump’s Budget Proposal is a Win for Trade Policy Realism

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Certainly since Donald Trump has been elected president, there’s been a tension even among his most supposedly hawkish trade policy advisers over basic objectives: Should the United States seek to solve its major trade-related problems mainly by promoting exports, or mainly by curbing imports? Of course, the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive. But the first suggests that the nation’s approach to trade will essentially be more of the same (albeit executed more competently), while the latter suggests a significant shift and is vigorously put into effect.

That’s one trade-related reason why Mr. Trump’s new budget proposal is so interesting and potentially important. If you believe that “money talks,” or “deeds count more than words” or any homilies to that effect, then it looks like that the tension has been resolved in favor of import limits – which would be good news indeed if it remains intact.

The reasons, as I’ve long written, are pretty simple, and should be much more obvious than they’ve been. First, for all its problems, the U.S. economy has been growing faster recently than most major world economies. And unlike the faster growers (mainly in the developing world), America’s growth isn’t export-led or -heavy. For that reason alone, its domestic market continues to be the world’s paramount emerging market.

Second, that relatively fast growth, combined with the ongoing export-heavy nature of most foreign economies means, and the huge and chronic American trade deficit, means that the size of the U.S. domestic market into which domestic producers can sell is enormous in absolute terms and indeed much bigger relative to foreign markets than widely realized. After all, this American market includes not only whatever growth the United States can generate going forward, but the large chunks of its market currently controlled by foreign competition.

Third, however much leverage the United States enjoys in global trade, and over foreign countries, its influence over its own market will always be much greater. And that goes double for countries with long records of sweeping protectionism.

Fourth, the domestic market is the market that domestic American producers should know best. Therefore, despite its undeniably impressive dynamism, these domestic producers have less to learn about customer preferences than is the case with foreign market.

For examples of the administration’s apparent ambivalence, simply check out statements made in the confirmation hearings of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative-designate Robert Lighthizer. Indeed, it’s easy to conclude that their stated bottom line endorses the export-focused approach.

But the new Trump budget document is sending the opposite message – and its declared spending priorities arguably matter more than even sworn testimony. Specifically, according to the Commerce Department section, the final budget

Strengthens the International Trade Administration’s trade enforcement and compliance functions, including the anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations, while rescaling the agency’s export promotion and trade analysis activities.”

Not that this text is the end of the story, or even close. As widely recognized, the new budget statement is the first step in a lengthy process in which Congress will be heavily involved. Moreover, because so much of it is so controversial, and because the nation is so far from a consensus on official spending priorities, it’s entirely likely that the current budget priorities will simply wind up being carried over for the time being.

And as for trade policy specifically, Commerce Department funding will be far from the only determinant as to where the administration will put most of its energies. Just one example: the structure of whatever new or revised trade agreements it seeks will matter greatly as well. So will the fate of the border adjustability feature of the House Republican leadership’s tax reform proposals – which would both in effect penalize imports and subsidize exports. Moreover, because the U.S. trade law system is so (inevitably) slow-moving, episodic and reactive, relying exclusively or even mainly on this traditional trade enforcement tool will become a recipe for trade policy failure.    

But the Commerce budget priorities appear to be a straw in the wind that’s unmistakable – and because realistic, unmistakably welcome.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: With the Fed Seemingly Set to Tighten Again, Real Wages are in Recession

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If you had any doubts that American workers are experiencing a dramatic slowdown in inflation-adjusted wages, the newest figures on this pay indicator just put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) should emphatically dispel them. In fact, they make clear that the nation is now stuck in a technical real wage recession – meaning that constant dollar hourly wages have fallen on net for at least two straight quarters. Moreover, when looking over the last two years, the worst results have been registered in price-adjusted hourly pay for blue-collar workers.

Keep that in mind if the Federal Reserve, as expected, announces a new tightening of monetary policy this afternoon, in large measure because the U.S. labor market supposedly has healed the wounds suffered during the Great Recession and the historically weak recovery that followed it.

For all private sector workers and for manufacturing workers, constant dollar hourly pay is down 0.19 percent since last March. And for blue-collar workers in these swathes of the economy, the story actually is slightly worse. Production and non-supervisory employees in the private sector overall have seen their after-inflation hourly pay fall by 0.33 percent since last February. For their counterparts in manufacturing, real wages are down 0.12 percent since December, 2015. (Government workers’ wages aren’t tracked by BLS, because they’re set largely by politicians’ decisions, not by market forces. Therefore, they tell us little about the economy’s fundamentals.)

And the new real wage figures add to the evidence – presented at RealityChek last month – that increases in such take-home pay adjusted for prices have slowed dramatically over the last year.

Here are the new numbers for all private sector workers:

February, 2014-15: +2.03 percent

February, 2015-16: +1.33 percent

February, 2016-17: 0 percent

And the new results for private sector production and non-supervisory workers:

February, 2014-15: +2.15 percent

February, 2015-16: +1.77 percent

February, 2016-17: -0.33 percent

Here are the figures for all manufacturing workers”

February, 2014-15: +1.33 percent

February, 2015-16: +1.32 percent

February, 2016-17: +0.09 percent

And finally, here are the new data for blue-collar manufacturing employees:

February, 2014-15: +1.90 percent

February, 2015-16: +1.75 percent

February, 2016-17: -0.57 percent

In fact, the only piece of good news in the new BLS report is that the January and February real wage figures are still preliminary. But unless they see unprecedented upward revisions, or constant dollar wages enjoy a strong rebound in the next few months, expect the real wage numbers to start turning up the political heat both for a Federal Reserve that’s apparently thinking “Mission Accomplished,” and a president apparently convinced that his mere election is speeding up the recovery.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Where America Has Literally Been Asleep at the Switch on Trade

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Here’s a big, sincere shout-out to U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (Oregon) and Tammy Baldwin (Illinois). Thanks to their insightful curiosity, Americans have just gotten evidence that their country’s trade policy is indeed as much of a disaster area as claimed by President Trump and other critics.

Their accomplishment? The two Democrats asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into how well Washington has been implementing a more than two-decade-old global trade agreement aimed at opening government procurement markets around the world. Also examined: the trade liberalization record of government procurement provisions of bilateral and regional trade agreements signed by the United States (like the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA).

The findings were released last month (and alertly reported by Politico‘s trade correspondents), and make clear that the United States has been getting royally shafted. Moreover, these results have been inevitable both because the global deal was so poorly conceived from an American standpoint, and because literally no one in the U.S. trade policy-making apparatus has been tracking the results of either the global agreement or the relevant sections of the narrower trade deals agreement affecting literally trillions of dollars worth of actual and potential sales.

Even worse, the blithe assumption that other signatory countries has been scrupulously abiding by all of these procurement agreements has sharply limited America’s willingness to expand and tighten the Buy American rules that cover its own official purchases – in the process, passing up major opportunities for growth and job creation at a time of economic weakness. And P.S. This includes President Trump.

The GPA is a “plurilateral” agreement negotiated under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. In other words, accession by WTO members is voluntary. Still, the deal, which went into effect in 1996, currently encompasses 47 countries that are now committed to placing foreign enterprises and their own domestic entities on an equal footing when they compete for government contracts. Nine other WTO members are in the process of signing on. Most of America’s bilateral and regional trade agreements also prohibit discrimination in awarding these opportunities for supplying governments with goods and services. Consequently, 19 other countries have promised the United States to open their official procurement markets to the United States in return for America opening its own to them. (All of these governments have carved out various agreed on exemptions. And sub-national governments are covered by these deals as well.)

With stakes this high, you’d think that at some point the U.S. government would display reasonably consistent interest during the multi-decade lives of these trade agreements in whether they’ve been paying off. But according to the GAO researchers, you’d be wrong.

Even though the GPA requires detailed, annual reporting of procurement statistics by signatory governments, the GAO’s

review of data that the United States and next five largest GPA parties [the European Union, Japan, Canada, South Korea, and Norway] submitted to the WTO for 2008 through 2013 found that a number of parties did not submit the reports annually, the submitted reports did not include all required data, and each party’s reports included inconsistencies that limit the data’s comparability. Further, a lack of common understanding on definitions of key terms has led to inconsistent reporting practices among the GPA parties, and a GPA statistical working group has made little progress in addressing such challenges.”

Some specific failings:

>”although Canada submitted annual notifications with central government procurement data for 2008 through 2013, the notifications did not include data on procurement by subcentral governments or by other government entities”;

>”Japan’s annual notifications have not included procurement by entities such as utilities and state-owned enterprises that are covered by the GPA”:

>”South Korea has not submitted notifications for any year except 2010, and Japan has not submitted a notification for 2012 although it did so for other years through 2013.”

>”Of the U.S. FTAs [free trade agreements] we reviewed, only NAFTA requires its parties to report annual statistics on government procurement; however, the last data exchange between the three NAFTA parties took place in 2005. As a result, information about the extent to which U.S. FTA partner governments open procurement to U.S. suppliers is not available.” [Emphasis added.]

The United States has been far from a whiz in reporting, either. But its failings have been much less excusable given all the evidence provided by the GAO showing that it’s opened its procurement markets much wider than any other GPA or FTA signatory. Despite the above data limitations, the GAO nonetheless felt confident in concluding that for 2010, “[T]he United States reported more than twice as much GPA-covered government procurement as the next five largest GPA parties combined, although total U.S. government procurement is less than the combined total for the other five parties.”

In money terms, the value of contracts opened to non-discriminatory bidding by the United States at all levels of government was $837 billion. The value of contracts opened by those five non-U.S. GPA parties that promised to liberalize the most in absolute terms was some $381 billion. Yet total government procurement in the United States that year was some $1.7 trillion, the GAO estimates. For the other five GPA signatories, it was much larger – $4.4 trillion.

Moreover, because of the aforementioned reporting failures, it’s not possible at all for the U.S. government, or the American people, to gauge procurement liberalization under free trade agreements – with the exception of Canada. But when their procurement budgets are added in, and duplication eliminated (e.g., for Canada), the total market that should be available to American business and workers at least in principle is $4.4 trillion. 

The GAO doesn’t conclude that U.S. trade partners are simply capitalizing on Washington’s indifference to flout their treat obligations. In fact, in one instance, it even tries to get them partly off the hook: “Many EU member states, as well as Japan and South Korea, have actual government expenditures smaller than the United States’ and are therefore likely to have more smaller-value individual procurement contracts that fall below the GPA threshold levels.” (Decisions on the smallest government contracts typically are one of the main GPA and FTA procurement carve-outs.)

But if so many foreign government contracts are too small to be opened for non-discriminatory bidding, then obviously these trade deals are too poorly structured to give American producers anything remotely like reciprocity. And more important, Washington so far has had no way of knowing judging by any measures whether non-discrimination in principle is being translated into non-discrimination in fact .

As Mr. Trump’s Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, recently noted, “There’s not a lot of point making trade deals if you don’t enforce them.” He could have added that such enforcement is impossible without seeking and obtaining reliable data on results. Donald Trump’s predecessors have flunked these two crucial tests of American trade policy-making. Until he gets strong evidence to the contrary, it’s time for the president to take the logical next step, assume that the GPA and the FTA government procurement measures have been serious mistakes, and ignore them as thoroughly as America’s competitors evidently have.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Why ‘Less Can be More’ in Trade with Germany – & Others

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This week’s first meeting – in Washington, D.C. – between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump is being billed as a confrontation between polar opposites due to apparently clashing positions on immigration, trade, alliances and international organizations, and contrasting personalities. Actually, notwithstanding the penchant of the mainstream media and bipartisan policy establishment for Trump hysteria-mongering, one of the divides between Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel may actually be more fundamental than recognized. Growing trade tensions might be signaling that the two economies simply aren’t structured to trade with each other in mutually beneficial ways – at least not at current levels.

So far, the mounting trade row – which could already be the most serious since American ire at an allegedly undervalued deutschemark during the Nixon era – has produced a now-predictable policy debate. The Trump administration is accusing Germany’s powerful economy of unfairly benefiting from a euro that’s kept weak because of the economic problems of its partners in the eurozone. As a result, goes the American complaint, its goods enjoy major price advantages over their U.S. competition all over the world for reasons that have little to do with market forces.

Germany and its sympathizers counter that the country simply makes terrific products, especially advanced manufactures, and that its trade barriers are actually on the low side. Another argument raised in Germany’s defense – in part because of a strong inflation-phobia created by the disastrous experience of the 1920s and by the population’s natural frugality, Germans tend to be low spenders and high savers.

All of the pro-German positions have merit. And the Trump administration case is further complicated by Germany’s consistent calls for eurozone economic policies that would tend to strengthen the common currency.

Yet Germany’s free trade record is at the least open to dispute. Although its tariff levels are generally low, like most other U.S. trade partners, it uses a value-added tax that effectively raises the prices of foreign goods headed for its market and reduces the prices of its exports via the rebates they receive. Moreover, even before President Trump took office, the U.S. government repeatedly reported that non-tariff barriers maintained by Berlin “can be a difficult hurdle for companies wishing to enter the market and require close attention by U.S. exporters.” The country’s government procurement market appears to pose special problems. According to the American Commerce Department under former President Obama:

Selling to German government entities is not an easy process. German government procurement is formally non-discriminatory and compliant with the GATT Agreement on Government Procurement and the European Community’s procurement directives. That said, it is a major challenge to compete head-to-head with major German or other EU suppliers who have established long-term ties with purchasing entities.”

Nonetheless, the more closely the German economy is examined, the less amenable to standard trade policy remedies it looks. For Germany has long decided to create a national economic and business model that seeks both to maximize net exports and depress consumption at home. Two examples should suffice to make the case.

First, although Germany’s is, as frequently noted, a high-cost, high-regulation country, upon adopting the euro, its government put into effect a series of policies that put its labor costs on a much slower growth path than those of the rest of the eurozone and the high income world as a whole (including the United States). As many critics of Germany have charged, the resulting wage repression has overpowered the euro-dollar exchange rate and in fact amounted to an “internal devaluation” that produced the same effects as currency manipulation.

Second, Germany has also limited its consumption levels in part through very low expenses on infrastructure and other public investments. Moreover, according to one former European Central Bank official, the country’s external orientation has been so pronounced that “private investment in Germany’s aging capital stock has been weakened by many German companies’ desire to invest abroad.”

Revealingly, some of the harshest attacks on these and similar German policies have come from the eurozone itself. In particular, members like Greece and other southerly countries have accused Berlin of conducting a mercantilist campaign to grow at their expense by flooding them with exports and denying them comparable opportunities to supply the German market.

Without taking sides in this dispute, it’s clear that because the eurozone is a currency union, its success arguably depends on members conducting both their domestic and foreign economic policies in mutually compatible ways. So in principle, Germany’s eurozone fellows have grounds for complaining about the totality of the German national model. (The reverse holds as well in principle.)

The United States also should be perfectly free to ask Germany to change its priorities. Unlike eurozone members, however, it has no legitimate claims to influence over this vital aspect of German sovereignty. Germans apparently have decided that their choices work for them, and are absolutely correct to insist that aside from the rules of the World Trade Organization or other international legal arrangements, they have no obligations to accede to foreign demands for reform. Berlin, moreover, has a point when it notes that the United States should look to domestic practices of its own that might be hampering its global competitiveness, rather than placing the burden of change on others.

This German argument, however, is not dispositive. After all, if America’s national business and economic model emphasizes consumption and domestic-led growth rather than promoting net exports, that’s a choice that its own political system has been entitled to make. Moreover, it’s a choice that makes considerable sense for a big, continent-sized economy with great potential for more national self-sufficiency in a wide variety of goods and services. Germany has no more right to dictate U.S. preferences than vice versa.

The decisive difference between the two countries is that Germany has been happy with the pre-Trump status quo, and the United States has not. Washington of course has the right to press complaints about possible German violations of world trade law and other trade agreements. But it also needs to recognize that such conventional approaches are dwarfed by the breadth and depth of Germany’s approach to economics. Promoting German reform isn’t likely to work, either – given the above sovereignty concerns, and given the sheer difficulty facing even so powerful a country as the United States in urging domestic reform on another powerful country – especially one that views itself as a success.

So what to do?

First, in general terms, understand that, however legitimate Germany’s sovereign decisions, they create problems to which the United States is equally entitled to respond

Second, without continuing to hector or nag Germany, figure out the most effective response and act accordingly.

Third, depending on Germany’s counter-moves, decide what combination of unilateral carrots, sticks, and negotiations, might achieve progress (including some acceptable compromise), while preserving approximately current levels of trade.

But fourth, recognize along the way that Germany’s legitimate sovereign economic decisions simply may not permit bilateral trade to continue at those levels with acceptable results for the United States. If need be, then, revert to whatever unilateral strategy can preserve or enhance interests America has identified as its own priorities.

The new status quo would put the ball in Germany’s court, and grant it full scope to accommodate the United States if it’s dissatisfied, or make whatever other changes are needed to achieve whatever new objectives it chooses.

In other words, Washington should deal with Germany through an ongoing process of give and take, employing a variety of tactics and tools in flexible, agile ways. The aim would be to capitalize on its considerable leverage but also understand where it can and can’t hope to succeed at acceptable cost and risk. This approach clearly has a less impressive upside than efforts to produce grand bargains, or than more extensive international economic integration schemes — both of which can in theory maximize bilateral commerce. But its very modesty means that it’s less likely to risk angry misunderstandings and consequent major blow-ups, and more likely to result in trade and investment that’s sustainable not only economically, but politically, socially, and culturally.

President Trump can think of this new policy framework as the Less is More Strategy. And he should realize that its usefulness extends far beyond Germany.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Why the New Jobs Report May Really Matter

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I have no idea how much credit President Trump deserves for the February U.S. jobs figures released last Friday that nearly everyone hailed as a strong performance. I feel somewhat more confident in noting that the results provided some preliminary indications – regardless of who or what deserves credit – that one of the most troubling features of the current employment recovery may have peaked.

Specifically, the February numbers show a reversal of the economy’s burgeoning reliance on what I call the subsidized private sector to generate employment gains, and a revival of the role played by the real private sector. That’s great news if these developments continue.

To summarize, the subsidized private sector consists of those American industries classified officially as private sector industries, but where levels of demand – and therefore employment – depend heavily on government subsidies. Healthcare services is the leading example. The real private sector is hardly devoid of government influence. But its levels of demand and employment are largely shaped by free market forces.

And since the real private sector leads the economy in innovation and productivity, signs that it’s regaining its relative job-creation chops deserve cheers.

I called the encouraging signs preliminary because they only cover the first two data months of this year. But they reveal that, in January and February, the subsidized private sector created only 17.55 percent of the 473,000 total net new jobs created by the economy. (Both numbers will be revised several times more.) That’s a much smaller share than the subsidized industries generated last January and February: 24.79 percent of the 363,000 net gain in employment.

The same conclusions flow from another set of data. During the first two data months of this year, the subsidized private sector accounted for 18.53 percent of the total employment improvement of the private sector as it’s conventional defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the first two months of last year, that figure was 27.19 percent.

At the same time, the subsidized industries clearly are still punching above their weight on the employment front. In 2013, their two-month share of all net new jobs was only 13.48 percent, and of conventionally defined private sector jobs, 13.59 percent.

Looking at the economy on a standstill basis also reveals the importance of subsidized private sector job-creation. When the last recession began, at the end of 2007, it represented 13.22 percent of all non-farm payrolls (the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ U.S. jobs universe). When the current recovery began, in the middle of 2009, the subsidized private sector share had grown to 14.97 percent. And as of last month, despite the developments noted above, this percentage was up to 15.74 percent.

And this subsidized private sector growth has come in part at the expense of the real private sector. It’s share of total U.S. employment as of last month (68.94 percent) is still higher than at the recovery’s onset (67.80 percent). But it’s lower than its level at the onset of the last recession (70.62 percent).

Viewed from another perspective, when the current recovery began, as mentioned above, the subsidized private sector represented 14.97 percent of total American jobs. But since that time, it’s been responsible for 22.60 percent of total employment growth. The real private sector at the beginning of the current recovery accounted for 67.80 percent of total American jobs. And it’s share of subsequent employment growth has been higher, too (79.10 percent). But the gap between its share of employment and its role in employment growth is much lower than that of the subsidized industries.

Finally, the new jobs report contained some good news for fans of former President Obama. It revealed that from the start of the recovery that began a few months into his first term in office, through the end of his administration, hiring was slightly less subsidized private sector-heavy than originally reported.

There’s no doubt that two months’ worth of data per se hardly signal the dawn of a new, brighter era in American employment. At the same time, most trends don’t last forever. So in the months ahead, these subsidized private sector job trends will deserve more attention than ever. Indeed, they’ll be at least as important a yardstick for judging the Trump administration’s economic performance as the overall jobs totals.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Despite Strength in February, Manufacturing’s Jobs Recession Continued

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February’s preliminary U.S. manufacturing jobs figures showed that the sector boosted payrolls by 28,000 – its best performance since the same total for January, 2016, but that its jobs recession continued, with employment down on net since that month. Manufacturing wage growth, moreover, showed some weakness, as average hourly pay improved by just 0.04 percent on month (lagging the overall private sector) and the yearly improvement of 2.89 percent was mediocre by the last few months’ standards.

The positive manufacturing jobs revisions for December and January brightened former President Obama’s record for employment creation in the sector, but the increase still fell short of his stated second term goal of creating one million new positions in industry by 625,000.

Despite the good February monthly advance – plus the sector’s first annual employment increase (7,000) since last July – manufacturing jobs as a share of the non-farm total hit a new record low of 8.49 percent. Nor did the February results change manufacturing’s status as an American employment and wages laggard. Since the mid-2009 onset of the current economic recovery, industry employment is up only 5.59 percent, versus the 11.28 percent for the nation as a whole, and pre-inflation wages have risen by 14.51 percent versus the 17.84 percent rise for the entire private sector.

Here’s my analysis of the latest monthly (February) manufacturing figures contained in this morning’s employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

>The first full (though preliminary) monthly tally of President Trump’s manufacturing job creation record showed that even a strong February – which saw industry’s payrolls grow by 28,000 on net – wasn’t enough to pull the sector out of its latest jobs recession.

>Although the February results were manufacturing’s best since January, 2016’s (which were identical), the sector’s employment is still below that month’s total by 5,000 on net.

>In addition, manufacturing wages displayed signs of weakness in February. Their pre-inflation sequential increase of 0.04 percent trailed that of the overall private sector (0.23 percent) for the second straight month.

>Year-on-year, however, manufacturing’s wage performance looks better. Hourly pay rose by 2.89 percent versus the 2.80 percent figure for the private sector. Manufacturing held the edge in January, too, but the gap was wider (2.89 percent versus 2.60 percent).

>The new Labor Department release also showed that former President Obama’s record as a manufacturing jobs creator was somewhat better than previously reported. Net new manufacturing jobs still rose much less (a total of 375,000) than the one million goal he set for his second term. But positive revisions for January and February boosted manufacturing positions by 13,000 during those years.

>The last three months’ totals also did nothing to halt the historic slide in manufacturing’s share of total non-farm employment. In February, this figure hit a new record low of 8.49 percent.

>On the brighter side, the February yearly manufacturing jobs increase of 7,000 was the first such advance since the 7,000 annual growth last July.  Nonetheless, it compared poorly with the 69,000 year-on-year gain reported for the previous Februarys.  

>Even so, manufacturing remains a jobs and wages laggard during the current economic recovery. Since the economy returned to expansion mode in June, 2009, industry employment is up by only 5.59 percent – less than half the 11.28 percent advance recorded by the private sector as a whole.

>Since its 2010 employment bottom, manufacturing has now regained 929,000 (40.51 percent) of the 2.293 million jobs it lost during the recession and its aftermath. By contrast, the private sector overall lost 8.801 million jobs from the recession’s December, 2007 onset through its February, 2010 absolute employment low. Since then, it has increased net employment by 16.217 million.

>Moreover, whereas total private sector employment is now 6.41 percent higher than at the recession’s beginning, in late 2007, manufacturing employment is still 9.92 percent lower.

>On the wage front, pre-inflation manufacturing pay has risen by 14.51 percent during this recovery – again slower than the 17.84 percent for the entire private sector.

>Adjusting for inflation, manufacturing’s wage performance looks much worse. The latest figures only cover January, but they show that real hourly pay in the sector is up only 0.65 percent since the recovery began in mid-2009 – more than seven years ago. Real wages in the private sector overall are up 3.39 percent.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Why Illegal Immigrants Look Like U.S. Productivity Killers

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Steve Goldstein of Marketwatch.com (an excellent business and economics site for which I’ve been pleased to write) has just done a good job of indicating why you can’t trust everything you read – even when it comes from a fancy-dan economic consulting firm. Check out how he threw some cold water over a new report contending that illegal immigrants have been partly responsible for America’s recent productivity slowdown. As Goldstein notes, for example, this conclusion seems to proceed at least to some extent on a misunderstanding about whether illegals are counted in certain key government economic data.

At the same time, we’ve just gotten additional evidence from The Wall Street Journal suggesting that the notion that illegals exert a drag on productivity growth is on target after all.

The first comes from a Journal article that spotlights a study from another fancy consultancy. It found that heavy use of illegal immigrants is one factor that’s held back productivity growth in the American construction industry. In the words of the Journal piece:

The sector’s fragmentation makes it hard to adopt industrywide standards. Much of the construction industry relies on volatile government contracting, which makes it difficult for firms to plan very far ahead. Regulatory requirements can also reduce incentives to invest in productivity-boosting improvements. And much of the construction sector relies on low-skilled workers—including undocumented immigrants—who tend to be lower-paid and less productive than their skilled counterparts.”

To be fair, the article notes that lagging productivity performance is a worldwide, not simply an American, phenomenon. And it’s not obvious that the construction sectors of other countries rely as heavily on illegal workers as does America’s.

Nonetheless, this analysis might also understate the productivity-killing role played by illegal construction workers in one important sense. It fails to mention that the availability of so much cheap labor greatly reduces construction firms’ incentives to buy labor-saving machinery, or figure out other ways to manage their operations more efficiently.

This article does note the sector’s sluggish adoption of automation – and attributes it to its characteristically tight profit margins, which supposedly make such expenditures inordinately risky. But I can’t help but wonder if the article has causation backward. Maybe its low degree of automation – and the resulting inefficiencies explain some of construction’s weak productivity growth.

The second Wall Street Journal example underscoring the connection between illegal immigrant employment and the productivity slowdown came in a report on a new trend in the restaurant industry: offsetting the impact on their bottom lines of mandated minimum wage hikes by adding “labor surcharges” to checks. Evidently, the idea is that customers will be more willing to pay this extra fee than higher prices for menu items.

I have no idea whether this is true. But I do know that restaurants rely heavily on illegal immigrant labor, that the abundance of these workers has helped keep the wages they pay very low, and that the sector has a long history of crying “Labor shortage!” to justify keeping the legal immigration floodgates wide open and the border porous – thereby ensuring that its potential workforce will in fact remain in surplus. I also know that restaurateurs like to insist that their sector’s profit margins generally are “razor thin,” which means that containing labor costs is especially important.

Add all of these factors and their influence up, and you have a classic portrait of an industry that’s skimped on productivity-enhancing, labor-saving devices because illegal immigration helped it keep labor costs at rock-bottom levels. Indeed, a senior executive at the National Restaurant Association has all but acknowledged this sorry situation: “Productivity growth in the restaurant industry has really been quite minimal over the past decade. Sales per employee in the industry is still low not only compared to other retailers, but it’s low compared with other industries.”

Finally, here’s more indirect confirmation for an illegal immigrant-productivity connection in these two sectors. For all its illegal immigrant usage, construction is a relatively high wage industry. Its average hourly wage ($28.52 according to the latest government data) exceeds that of the typical private sector job ($26 even). Therefore, it’s not vulnerable to the recent minimum wage hikes – and there’s no reason to think that its productivity-enhancing investments are on the rise.

Restaurants, on the other hand, are not only relatively low paying – with average wages of $13.69. They employ lots of minimum wage workers, and are very worried about the spreading movement in states and localities to raise minimum wages. So even though their major illegal immigrant employers, too, the prospect of higher payrolls is generating considerable new interest in automation.

Imagine how much more such investment would be made by both industries if their illegal immigrant crutch was removed, or greatly shrunk, as well. And since productivity growth is widely viewed as the most important key to raising American living standards on a sustainable (as opposed to bubble-ized) basis, imagine how welcome that development would be for the entire economy.

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: America Still Playing Uncle Sucker on Asian Security

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If you want the clearest possible explanation of why America’s longstanding national security strategy in Asia is increasingly, jaw-droppingly, and – worst of all – needlessly dangerous, check out what China’s foreign minister just said about the growing North Korea nuclear missile threat Washington has been coping with, and then look at a map.

According to top China diplomat (at least by title) Wang Yi, the United States and North Korea “are like two accelerating trains” speeding toward “a head-on collision.” Pyongyang is developing ever more potent nuclear weapons that are ever more capable of hitting American territory. So that – along with the scarily erratic nature of the North Korean regime – explains the “dangerous” part. The map explains the “needless” part.

So take out (or look up) your atlases. You’ll see that the United States and North Korea – the countries on that collision course – are slightly less than 6,900 miles apart. Now look at some of the countries that Wang evidently believes aren’t on a collision course with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. China itself is right next door. So is South Korea. And Russia. Japan is less than 800 miles away. Why are they, unlike geographically remote America, seemingly lumped into the bystander category?

The (intimately related) reasons: First, the United States has significant military forces stationed nearly along the Demilitarized Zone dividing North from South Korea, along with other major deployments in Japan. And don’t forget their family members! In other words, the Americans in Korea will be sitting right in the way if much stronger North Korean forces invade the south. And the Americans in Japan are exposed to Pyongyang’s missiles, as North Korea’s latest test launches have again made all too clear.

Shocked? You shouldn’t be. That’s the idea. If North Korean aggression kills large numbers of Americans, and showing signs of succeeding, a U.S. president will face strong pressure to respond by using nuclear weapons against Kim’s military and country.

As I’ve written repeatedly, until the last few years, this strategy was defensible. Not only were North Korea’s nuclear forces greatly inferior to America’s, but they lacked the means to hit the United States. So the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons use was, reasonably, judged to be a prudent policy that would deter any North Korean aggression in the first place, and thereby ensure the security of both South Korea and Japan without risk to the American homeland.

But as I’ve also written repeatedly, North Korea’s nuclear program is steadily moving toward being able to strike the United States. So the risks to Americans posed by this strategy are way up – and sure to rise even higher. Worse, the North Korean forces are thought to be increasingly survivable. That is, they’re either mobile and/or well hidden enough to prevent Washington from having much confidence of destroying them all either in a preemptive first strike, or an attack on North Korea launched in response to any invasion. As a result, even if America’s own nukes destroyed North Korea, whichever of the latter’s leaders escaped this fate could order a revenge attack.

And the second reason why the United States alone is (rightly) described as one of the two oncoming trains is that for decades, Washington has actively discouraged Japan and even South Korea from fielding the forces needed to deal with North Korea on their own for fear that one or both countries would build their own nuclear forces in response, and thereby “destabilize” the supposedly crucial East Asia-Pacific region still further. The United States also remains determined to prevent Japan from becoming a serious and independent conventional military power, too, which allegedly would increase the odds of it returning to its aggressive, militaristic past. So U.S. leaders have decided to bear the lion’s share of the burden and danger of keeping North Korea (and China) at bay.

Since this policy now means that protecting Asian allies could mean the annihilation of American cities, it’s clearly time for Washington to admit the danger, get out of the way, and let the region’s countries handle the North Korea problem. This goes double since Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia are amply capable economically and technologically of building the militaries that can get the job done.

Two closely linked objections that have been raised since this American strategy was born in the aftermath of World War II will surely be raised again. The first is that such a U.S. withdrawal could produce not only reasonable defense buildups by Asian powers, but – because so many have historically fought and mistrusted one another – heated conventional and nuclear arms races. The second is that such competitions would backfire big-time on the United States, largely because Asia is so economically critical to America.

What the stand-patters don’t seem to get, however, is that precisely because American policy looks so positively suicidal – and non-credible – to the allies in particular, a growing chorus in Japan and South Korea is urging nuclear-ization anyway. I’ve reported previously on such developments, and just yesterday came new calls for such capabilities. As the North Korea nuclear forces get better and better, expect further widening of this divide between America’s policy rationale on the one hand, and entirely understandable Asian mistrust on the other.

As for the economics, even if trade and investment with highly protectionist Asia were a winning proposition for the United States (and it’s not by a long shot), it’s going to get increasingly dicey for American leaders to keep insisting that it’s important to risk nuclear attack on the homeland to make sure that U.S. businesses can make some more money in the region.

In that vein, however, it remains troubling that even the most detailed reporting lately on the mounting North Korean threat keeps omitting the fact that the United States faces greater and greater dangers from Pyongyang not because it’s protecting itself. After all, existing U.S. policy of responding with nuclear arms to a direct nuclear attack from North Korea (or any country) on its own territory is as credible a deterrent as is possible (even against arguably lunatic enemies). Instead, the United States faces this nuclear dangers because it’s protecting allies that it’s been encouraging to free-ride on its defense guarantees.

Equally troubling – even though Donald Trump pointed out most of these Asia alliance-related problems during the campaign, he now seems determined to preserve the policy status quo. If I didn’t know better, I’d conclude there’s a conspiracy of silence.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Productivity as the Main Manufacturing Job Killer Debunked Again

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Here’s a curious phenomenon that America’s political leaders and media need to focus on more: Practitioners of what I call fakeonomics keep prattling on about how the nation’s trade policy has almost nothing to do with the woes of domestic manufacturing and its workers, and that more automation and other forms of productivity gains are almost entirely to blame. At the same time, the official (and most authoritative) data keep proving them wrong. Just look at the latest figures, from this morning’s government report on America’s labor productivity.

These figures – from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) – measure how many hours of human work it takes the U.S. economy to produce a given quantity of output. So although they don’t directly gauge the role being played by machines and software of all kinds in American industries (including manufacturing), they’re no doubt an excellent proxy for automation levels and how they’re changing. In other words, if labor productivity is rising at a respectable rate, then it’s reasonable to conclude that at least lots of job loss is indeed attributable to the adoption of labor-saving technologies – as opposed to more net imports or more job offshoring. And the opposite holds logically, too,

As I’ve written, BLS itself admits that its published numbers likely overstate labor productivity growth for the whole economy – and therefore, it would seem, the automation rate. But even leaving aside this flaw, the new numbers once again show that “respectable” is the last adjective that’s appropriate to describe improvement lately in this gauge of efficiency.

BLS’ new figures for the fourth quarter of 2016 and for that full calendar year incorporate comprehensive revisions going back to 2012. Given how many quarterly and annual figures have been updated, the most efficient way to show how miserable productivity growth has been recently, and how weakly it’s correlated with manufacturing employment, is to show how the previous figures for the last three economic recoveries before the new adjustment and after it. (As discussed before, comparing economic performance during similar phases of a business cycle – e.g., recoveries versus recoveries, or recessions versus recessions – is the best way to get apples-to-apples data.)

Here are the manufacturing employment and manufacturing labor productivity changes for the expansion of the 1990s (as presented in this previous post):

manufacturing employment: -0.38 percent

manufacturing labor productivity: +46.78 percent

And here are the results for the shorter expansion of the 2000s (taken from the same post):

manufacturing employment: -12.44 percent

manufacturing labor productivity: +41.08 percent

And here are the results reported in that post for the current expansion – which has been longer than that of the previous decades, but not quite as long as its 1990s predecessor:

manufacturing employment: +4.68 percent

manufacturing labor productivity: +22.88 percent.

Where do the new revisions leave us? Manufacturing employment is now up 5.24 percent. And the sector’s labor productivity is now up 22.70 percent. In other words, it’s productivity growth has been slightly weaker than previously estimated – when it was already historically lousy.

It’s hard to escape the obvious conclusion: It’s high time for globalization cheerleaders to stop letting trade off the hook for major manufacturing job loss – and transition to work that’s actually productive.

Making News: Podcast of Last Night’s John Batchelor Show, a White House Plug, & Featured in a National Column

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I’m pleased to present the link to the podcast of my segment last night on John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show on America’s economic relations with China.  To access a lively discussion among John, co-host Gordon Chang, and former Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, and me, click here, look right to the Podcasts section, and scroll down to the entry whose label starts with “China’s rescue plan….”

In addition, it was great to see that last Friday, the White House press office distributed a release spotlighting my new New York Times op-ed endorsing President Trump’s approach to trade, jobs, and manufacturing.  Here’s the link.

Finally, today, Marketwatch.com‘s Darrell Delamaide mentioned the Times op-ed in his own latest column explaining why Mr. Trump’s America First approach to trade is long overdue.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.