Was it really that easy to dupe Americans?

The one takeaway from the Mueller Report is that an internet that was designed to add resiliency to communications can be turned into a medium that supported a campaign designed to dupe millions of American voters. Has it become that easy to make the American electorate gullible?

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Could Trump’s request for less NIST funding be turned into another political football?

Overview

This morning the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing to consider the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST’s published mission is “to promote U.S. innovation and competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”  The agency provides measurements, standards, and reference materials for the technology behind a range of products and services, including computers, GPS systems, cellphones, and automobiles.

Leading Democrats Didn’t Share Too Much Concern About Artificial Intelligence 

Based on the opening statement of the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, the primary concern of the Democrats appears to be the impact last year’s shutdown had on NIST research and staffing and how the proposed reductions would compound the problem of reduced research output combined with a reduction in staff.

House Subcommittee on Research and Technology chairman Haley Stevens appeared to emphasize the defunding of programs that support the manufacturing sector and also expressed her concerns about the potential of 400 staffers being let go from the agency.

Both Chairman Johnson and Chairman Stevens provided more of a passing reference to artificial intelligence and advanced communication, observations that don’t appear commensurate with the proposed reductions the areas of advanced communications, networks, and data systems.

The Administration’s proposed cuts in advanced communications, networks, and data systems are severe.  The Administration wants to reduce spending in this area by 41.4%, from $68.6 million in FY 2018 and FY 2019 to $40.2 million in FY 2020.  While NIST director, Dr. Walter Copan, explained that there would be a $8 million increase in spending in the area artificial intelligence, he could not provide, during his testimony, the specific methodology leading to the Administration’s proposed overall reductions for artificial intelligence and advanced communications.

What Messages Are Being Sent?

From the Trump Administration’s end, the message appears to be the hope that NIST’s attempts to coordinate research initiatives between the private sector, public sector, and academia will make up for the reduced contribution by the federal government to research.

Congressional Democrats may see the Administration’s proposal as an opportunity to portray funding reductions as a threat to America’s economic growth. The President’s budget may give them the opportunity to make an argument that Mr Trump is continuing his shutdown of the government with this request and again risking the creation of a negative impact on the economy.

Congressional Republicans may have their bluff called on how dedicated they are to economic growth. Supporting the President’s proposed reductions may be seen as in direct conflict with their economic growth narrative. How can the Republicans support infrastructure development and investment while cutting of a conduit for development and investment?

On the other hand, Congressional Republicans could turn this into an opportunity to push back on their party’s leader, just enough to show a little independence from the White House.

In the end, Congress controls the purse strings and could present a budget in the fall that invests more in the NIST than the President is requesting.

In this theater, the media is also a combatant

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve is meeting over the next two days to discuss whether or not to raise the federal funds rate.  The federal funds rate is an interest rate that banks assess each other when borrowing money overnight from each other.  The Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, drove the rate to near zero in attempt to boost the economy after the financial markets crashed. 

Lenders became wary of the collateral other financial firms were carrying in their portfolios, typically asset and mortgage-backed securities that were declining in value due to the inability of commercial and residential borrowers to keep up with interest and principal payments. By buying these securities from financial firms on poor footing and giving them cash, the Federal Reserve hoped to prime the lending pump and provide financial institutions with the confidence to go out and lend again.

 Mr. Trump has been taking issue with rate hikes, making the argument that the timing is horrible for the financial markets and the economy overall.  To some extent, he has a point; increasing rates could eventually lead to a devaluation of assets sensitive to rate increases, and where these assets are used as collateral for loans, being awarded a loan becomes a lot tougher if a bank does not think collateral is strong enough.

From a political warfare perspective, the media has time to time pointed out Mr. Trump’s apparent lack of respect for the independence of the Federal Reserve, specifically taking issue with Mr. Trump questioning Federal Reserve Board chairman Jerome Powell’s rationale for rate hikes.

But by commenting on the direction of rate hikes, is Mr. Trump really attacking the independence of the Federal Reserve? My answer is no.  

Under the Full Employment Act, the Congress, the Federal Reserve, and the President are to coordinate their activities in order to bring about the effective control of inflation, genuine full employment, production, balanced growth, and a balanced federal budget. The chairman of the Federal Reserve is to connect his monetary policy to the numerical goals established by the president in his economic report. That the President was transparent and vocal in pointing out what he considers the Federal Reserve’s pursuit of a policy that seems out of sync with his may be brash, but is not out of step with the coordination the law requires and even the transparency that many citizens in the United States allegedly prefer.

How well has the Trump administration, the Board of Governors, and the Congress coordinated on the economy is subject to another discussion, but the point here is that the media and other critics have failed to give the public a full picture of what is entailed in economic management and this lack of full disclosure on the part of media only adds to Mr. trump’s assertion of fake news and unfair targeting of him by the press.

The other takeaway, of course, is going and investigating other sources of information on the management of the American political economy.  In political warfare, you need to know where all the bullets are being fired from.  In this theater, the media is a combatant.   

Trump and the Federal Reserve: Governing with transparent purpose

Listening to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump over the past 19 months, if I were to summarize the role of government, it is to defend national borders, sustain an environment that creates jobs, and be impactful in driving up stock market values.  Mr. Trump has effectively drowned out the Republican congressional leadership to the point where I don’t care what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s views on what the government’s role is supposed to be.

Under my interpretation of public administration, the buck, when it comes to governing, begins and ends with who is in the White House.  It is the Executive who enforces the law and interprets the law every day given a particular problem.  An argument can be made that during the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the views of Mr. Trump’s challengers will take on some importance as voters compare the record of Mr. Trump with the promises of his Democratic challenger, but Americans have a way to go before the Democrats settle down on a few contenders and beginning pushing their messages before the electorate.  All we have right now are the whispered names of Andrew Cuomo, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and, yes, Hillary Clinton.

I suspect that none of the above named Democrats will be serious contenders in the spring of 2020 anyway.  Listening to the roll call of potential presidential candidates is like believing that the baseball team leading their division eight weeks into the season will be in the World Series much less holding the trophy.

In my lifetime, Mr. Trump has been the most transparent of presidents when it comes to the factions that he promotes.  Mr. Trump has been consistent and clear with his America’s economy first message. He took Mr. Trudeau out to the woodshed during the renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  He kept his word on pulling the United States out of the Paris accords on climate change and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.  He will not enforce the mandate that taxpayers are required to purchase health insurance, facing penalties if they don’t.  These initiatives are driven by a philosophy of American economic nationalism with the hopes of creating incentives for American businesses to repatriate jobs and cash to America’s shores.

He’s recently been transparent about the most important engine in the American economy: the Federal Reserve.  Mr. Trump disapproves of the Federal Reserve’s increase in the target for its federal funds rate, even though the Federal Reserve’s independence gives the central bank the okay to thumb their noses at the President.  The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which the Federal Reserve’s member banks may lend each other money overnight.  Changes in the fed funds rate seep into the overall economy in the form of mortgage rates, credit card rates, and interest rates on bonds.  Higher rates raise the costs of borrowing making it tougher for businesses to invest in growth including hiring more labor.

Higher rates mean that the economy’s “labor to tax conversion mechanism” becomes less efficient.  The labor to tax conversion mechanism is that layer of the economy where companies convert human resources into tax dollars by adding labor to payroll and collect and transmit income, payroll, and social security taxes to the Treasury.  Tax dollars are collected by the U.S. Treasury and either deposited for future spending on public programs or to service the debt.

But as I alluded to before, companies will feel constrained by interest hikes as they see revenues and profits reduced by higher costs for doing business. This may mean, depending on the business, a move toward automation in order to reduce labor costs.  Taking labor off of payroll means removing a head that could be taxed.  Will government have to apply some type of alternative tax applicable to an artificial intelligence that replaces a human intelligence on a factory line?

Going back to transparency, neither Mr. Trump or any leading Democrats have clearly demonstrated an ability to describe to the American public how their current economic environment works.  Neither begin any of their discussions on the economy with a discussion on capital or describe how the central bank is still the only game in town and the relationship to and importance of the central bank to all Americans. Mr. Trump has come the closest which means at this time he is the only elected official that gets it.

 

On Powell, Trump, and low rates

Donald Trump has shown no shyness when it comes to lamenting his regrets. When those regrets take the form of personnel, he fires them.  Over the past 48 hours, Mr. Trump has been expressing his frustration with current Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell.  Mr. Powell has been on a rate raising course since his appointment earlier this year and Mr. Trump believes that, setting aside what he perceives as Mr. Powell’s enjoyment, that this is not the time, given the advances in the economy and the stock market, for rate increases that may dampen or slow down the Trump Effect.

The textbook logic behind the Federal Reserve’s rate increases is to control the growth in asset values. Assets serve as collateral for borrowing and lending money.  If a potential lender sees an opportunity to lend $1,000,000 at 5% and has a portfolio of assets valued at $1.5 million, it will use its $1.5 million in assets to borrow the $1 million at say 2% and lend those funds out at 5%, and with all things equal, bring home a net return of 3%.

If the Federal Reserve believes that discipline is in order, it will raise the rates at which  banks borrow from each other overnight. It may also raise the rates on the funds that banks leave on deposit with the Federal Reserve. Both moves are designed to keep potential loanable funds out of the system, making money scarce and more expensive to find.  Also, higher rates, because of their inverse relationship with asset prices, result in asset values falling. This means that banks, businesses, and individuals will receive less funding because the collateral they have has lessened in value.

Increases in rates threaten wealth growth and consumption.  With the advent of modern central banking, nation-states have transformed into payment systems where taxes are collected, interest payments made to bond holders, and budgets used by politicians to bribe voters are financed.

It is the role of government to ensure the political-financial payment system operates at maximum.  Rates should stay low to encourage borrowing and investing.  Deficits should be eliminated resulting in less pressure to increase interest rates in order to attract purchasers of Treasury notes and lower rates for borrowers in the private sector.

Mr. Trump, unlike most of his critics and I dare say most central bankers, has a better understanding of this reality.