President Obama: the ultimate poverty hypocrite

Americans are experiencing buyer’s remorse. Last summer CNN found that 53% of those polled would choose Mitt Romney to be president today, over the 44% who chose Barack Obama. And with Obama’s approval ratings fixed these days below 50%, I suppose it’s only human to get a bit testy with those you’re compared to:

President Obama poked fun at former rival Mitt Romney and leading Republicans on Thursday, saying the GOP’s rhetoric on the economy was “starting to sound pretty Democratic.”

At the House Democratic Caucus retreat in Philadelphia, Obama noted that a “former Republican presidential candidate” was “suddenly, deeply concerned about poverty.”

“That’s great! Let’s go do something about it!” Obama added in a not-so-veiled jab at Romney.

What’s not particularly smart, however, is to frivolously attack someone’s track record on poverty when your own record looks abysmal:

A few ugly facts about the Obama Presidency:

  • Median household income has slumped from $53,285 in 2009 to $51,017 in 2012 just up to $51,939 in 2013.

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  • In comparison to his three previous successors, this fall in median income looks even worse:

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  • Real median household income was 8.0% lower in 2013 than in 2007.
  • Nearly 5.5 million more Americans have fallen into poverty since Obama took office.
  • Obama oversaw the first time the poverty rate remained at or above 15% three years running since 1965.
  • Home ownership fell from 67.3% in Q1 2009 to 64.8% in Q1 2014; black home ownership dropped from 46.1% to 43.3%.
  • Labour force participation rate fell from 65.7% in January 2009 to 62.7% in December 2014.
  • The federal debt owed to the public has more than doubled under Obama, rising by 103 percent.
  • 13 million Americans have been added to the food stamp roll since Obama took office.

Obama has been very successful in painting a picture of himself and the Democrats as the ‘Party of the Poor’, and did an even more sensational job convincing 2012 voters that Romney’s riches and successes put him out of touch with the middle-class America. But in reality, the president’s policies have pushed millions more people into financial stress and poverty.

And he’s still causing damage; even his latest State of the Union address called to raise taxes on university savings accounts and still cited fake unemployment numbers, as if this somehow helps the double-digit workers who have given up looking for jobs.

Perhaps the president really thinks his increased federal spending will pay off for the poor. Maybe he really believes that multi-millions more on food stamps is a saving grace instead of a tragedy. But regardless of intention, the facts speak for themselves.

Obama’s talk on poverty is cheap. And his mockery of Romney cheaper.

 

Taxes, trade, and derivatives: stabilisers for Russia and Iran?

Both Russia and Iran are in a bind due to the oil crisis. The best thing for both countries to do is to enact some easy-to-implement, partially stabilising policy. Three measures can be taken:

1. Enhance taxpayers’ autonomy by allowing entities to pay taxes in a greater variety of currencies;
2. Let citizens and businesses trade in a greater variety of currencies; and
3. Deregulate derivatives markets in particular (and financial markets more generally).

An entirely destabilised Russia and/or Iran is in no-one’s interest. Although relations with NATO are sour, other prominent nations such as China and India have offered a helping hand (albeit a limited one). However, an alternative, mutually beneficial agreement can occur between these four nations.

First: enhancing taxpayers’ and trading autonomy. Russia should allow its taxpayers to pay taxes in the rouble, the Chinese renminbi, the Indian rupee and the Iranian rial whilst legally enabling trade in all these currencies. Similarly, Iran should allow taxes to be paid in Russian rubles, Chinese renminbi and Indian rupees as well as enabling trade in them. Since only being allowed to pay taxes in one currency artificially raises the cost of doing business in other monies, the enhanced autonomy of taxpayers will make it feasible for some exporters to sell in relatively cheaper money (thereby stimulating production and exports) and importers to buy with relatively stronger money (thereby combating inflation). It would also provide access to less volatile and less vulnerable monies. Another advantage is that tax revenues paid in different monies would allow diversified foreign exchange reserves and, therefore, the Russian and Iranian governments would be in a better position to defend their own national monies’ value in future (should they so wish to). This would enable Russians and Iranians to get on with their lives in a more normal way. Furthermore, since Russian and Iranian currencies would be accepted for trade and taxes in the other country, the mutual recognition may help bolster their value. The arrangement would also benefit China and India since the renminbi and rupee would make up a greater share of foreign exchange transactions.

For tax collection, a proportional system could be implemented; that is, if an entity earned (for example) 30% in rupees, 50% in roubles, 15% in rial and 5% in renminbi, a flat tax of 30% could be imposed such that the 30% rate is levied on each of the currencies according to proportions held (meaning 9% of the 30% comes in rupees, 15% comes in roubles, 4.5% in rial and 1.5% in renminbi).

Furthermore, extensive deregulation and liberalisation of the countries’ respective derivatives markets (especially with respect to interest rates, foreign exchange, commodities and equities) will enable domestic entities to better manage current and expected risks. Although inflows from NATO member-states may not be so forthcoming, both India and China have a vested interest in a stable Russia and a stable Iran; hence, it would not be surprising if (given the increased opportunity and ensuring a supportive climate for it) increased foreign direct investment in the Russian and Iranian derivatives markets for commodities, equities, interest rates and foreign exchange helped substantially manage expected risk of the oil crisis in these countries.

Ideas can mean the difference between wealth and poverty

Adam Smith never said that “The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations”, as some people who have never read him think. It is hard to think of a less Smithian view – he was the opposite of that quote’s patrician and patronising voice, and had a deep compassion for people who had been unlucky in life.

But there is some evidence that disadvantaged people underinvest their savings at a huge cost to themselves. This seems to be true even when there are no social constraints or market failures that might cause this to happen.

One reason for this may simply be that poor people do not realise that the investment opportunities exist, or do not really consider that they might benefit from them. Consider those bright young students from deprived backgrounds who have never even considered applying to university, just because nobody in their families ever has either. Your experience of the world shapes how you react to various opportunities that you get.

To test this hypothesis, a group of researchers at Oxford performed a controlled trial in remote Ethiopian villages, where they showed one of several one-hour documentaries about poor Ethiopian farmers who had expanded a business, improved their farming practices or broken cultural norms by, say, marrying for love. “Individuals succeeded largely through their own efforts and by drawing on assistance from community members and available resources, not through outside government or NGO intervention.”

The trial involved a placebo group (shown a comedy movie) and a control group (shown nothing at all) and it seems to have been a success. Six months after the screenings, the documentary group’s savings rate had risen significantly above the control group’s and had also begun to access credit at a higher rate. (These are some of the poorest people in the world, so the absolute amounts – a few pounds – may seem very small to our eyes.)

School enrolment was up by 15 percent in the documentary group, although it was also up by 10 percent in the placebo group so the effect is unclear, and spending on school expenses was up by 17% (compared to no change in the placebo group).

Overall, the results seem to show that showing extremely poor people examples of people like them who had made something of themselves inspired them to invest in themselves and their families.

It’s just one study, but it hints at something bigger. Incentives matter, of course, but you have to be aware of the existence of an incentive for it to work on you. Even if you’re aware of it, you might discount (or exaggerate) its significance according to your experiences. In a complex world, each of us uses a different pair of glasses to focus on what matters and filter out what doesn’t. And no pair is perfect.

There is no obvious public policy lesson from any of this, except perhaps that people don’t always react predictably to incentives. Incentives matter – but so do ideas.

Russia, China, and the perils of economic warfare

Many Russians may believe that Putin’s invasion of Crimea was legitimate and justified, many may also believe that Putin’s domestic and foreign policies are at odds with their national interests. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if, in future, many Russians also remember the nations that refused to lift their economic sanctions whilst they suffered from a crippling crisis and that it was the Chinese government that offered help in those dire straits. Of course, this is limited help and there are a lot of other problems to sort out but the gesture is a strong signal of China’s stance and indicative of the possibility of further assistance in future.

Warfare via economic sanctions leads to the division of the world into inefficient trading blocs and provides a natural basis from which governments can form convenient, logical military alliances. The wonder then, is whether economic sanctions are really worth risking any chance at long-term peace and stability we may have? Though sanctions are designed to put pressure on governments, regular citizens suffer immensely from them and, in future, when young Russians remember this crisis, that suffering won’t easily be forgotten.

Iran, like Russia, is also in a vulnerable situation and it is quite easy to see how these sanctions that artificially and inefficiently divide the world could also encourage the proliferation of worrying military alliances between those states that feel ‘cornered’ and this garners a sort of legitimate solidarity against their ‘oppressors’.

In the long-run, with alliance systems that lead to increased military posturing (as we had already witnessed from Russia in the Ukraine and in the EU, we are witnessing from China in the Asia-Pacific and we might conceivably further witness from Iran and North Korea) there will be increased uncertainty and genuine fear amongst peaceful peoples and, in the end, global social welfare and economic growth will be stunted in the name of ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

Of course, the wider problem is that the global system of trade restrictions are essentially sugar coated economic sanctions and, therefore, a form of subtle economic warfare that we are conditioned to ignore. Free trade is necessary in order to ensure that there is no unnecessary, state-induced hatred fostered between peoples. Perhaps we could add to the Geneva conventions by suggesting that economic sanctions be ruled out of the question? In this way, instead of providing fertile ground for fostering the animosity necessary for armed conflict, people who truly want peace would be free to go about their own business. The peaceful sentiment that free trade encourages may also help discourage these governments from acting violently in the first place!

Oil prices, Iranian economic sanctions and the Strait of Hormuz

Just as Russia is feeling the pinch from the drop in oil prices (both leading up to and after OPEC’s decision not to cut production further), Iran is feeling the pinch too (being one of the main countries that desired a cut in production but was rebuffed by Saudi Arabia). It is hardly surprising that Russia sees incentive to engage in increasingly aggressive geopolitical posturing when oil-revenue makes up a substantial part of its income.

However, things have been eerily quiet in the Persian Gulf. Iran, being arguably probably in a far worse position, does not have the Russian luxury of nuclear power status or an extremely advanced, formidable Navy that can match the US. However, the Iranian government still has incentive to increase oil prices and it is strategically positioned next to the infamous Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important oil chokepoints.

Iran threatened to shut off the Strait of Hormuz in 2011 in response to US-led economic sanctions but this did little to unnerve markets since there was confidence in the US’s ability to swiftly resolve such an eventuality. Going into 2015, oil prices are forecasted to remain low and often forecast to go even lower. Simply raising tensions around the Strait whilst not actually shutting it off (this could be accomplished by perspicuous naval manoeuvring, aggressive press statements etc.) could quickly escalate into something more if responses are miscalculated and intentions misjudged. Such tensions are really not needed in this fragile macroeconomic and shaky geopolitical climate.

Easing up on at least some of the economic sanctions on Iran (even if they are only token concessions) will enable the Iranian government to at least appear to be in a stronger negotiating position (despite suffering from a very real deterioration in bargaining power from falling oil prices) and it may, thereby, delay or even help prevent possible future aggression. It would also help ensure that cash-strapped citizens across the world enjoy the benefits of cheaper oil for longer whilst decreasing the punishment of Iranian citizens (most of whom have little to no say when it comes to their government’s nuclear program).

Free trade with Iran is unlikely for the foreseeable future but even some token easing of trade restrictions could help preserve our increasingly shaky, threatened (relative) world peace.