The Rising Price of Trump’s Border Wall

WASHINGTON, DC – As a candidate, Donald Trump insisted on one signature issue above all: the United States will build a wall along its border with Mexico, and Mexico will pay for it. Seven months after taking office, however, Trump has made no progress on either front: political support for a new wall is diminishing, and the chance that Mexico will pay anything for it is essentially zero and seems to be off the agenda.

Now, Trump is doubling down – and threatening to shut down the government, or even default on the federal debt, unless Congress provides funding for a wall that he promised would cost US taxpayers nothing. If Trump escalates this confrontation, the costs for Americans – in terms of economic uncertainty and slower growth – are likely to pile up.

The amounts of money involved are not large relative to the overall size of the US government. In Trump’s first full-year budget, initial spending on the wall was put at $1.6 billion, with the president estimating that the total cost will be $12 billion (although other estimates are considerably higher). Compared to total US government spending of $3.9 trillion in 2016, that is a drop in the bucket. The argument here is about principles: what would a border wall really achieve from a practical standpoint, and what would it symbolize? But the precise rules about purse strings determine how this argument will play out.

The president does have some discretion on spending – and the Department of Homeland Security has already shifted funds from other programs to pay for the development of prototypes. But a fundamental principle of the US Constitution is that Congress controls the purse strings – meaning that discretionary spending, such as outlays for a border wall, is subject to the formal appropriations process. Building a border wall, or significantly extending what is already there, is not feasible without congressional approval.

The appropriations process is complex and not always transparent to outsiders. Regular appropriations are supposed to be enacted by October 1 (the beginning of the government’s fiscal year). But there is now a long tradition of “continuing resolutions,” which provide funding for just part of a year. And supplemental appropriations bills can provide additional funding at any time in response to particular situations – such as the aftermath of a major hurricane.

The Republicans control both the Senate and the House of Representatives. And the House already granted approval for exactly what Trump wanted on the wall – the $1.6 billion was included in a broader $788 billion spending package, so the wall did not have to be debated separately.

Under current rules, 60 votes would be needed in the 100-member Senate to fund the wall, and the Democrats, with 48 seats, already managed to exclude this item from the spending bill earlier this year, which funded the government through September 30.

Now Trump has issued an ultimatum: fund the wall, or face a shutdown of the federal government – meaning that he and the Republicans would refuse to conclude any appropriations deal by October 1. Or perhaps the wall will become part of a showdown over how the debt ceiling for the federal government should be raised, with the deadline for doing so also likely to come around the end of September.

Complicating the issue further, some congressional Republicans – such as Senator Paul Rand of Kentucky and Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina – seem not to oppose some form of partial default or other reneging on debt by the US government. And remember that John Boehner stepped down as Speaker of the House in 2015 in part over similar budget struggles with the right wing of his party.

The impact of a debt default would be cataclysmic, and it seems unlikely that Trump would be foolish enough to go so far. But Goldman Sachs, a politically well-connected bank, puts the odds of a government shutdown at 50/50 – up from around 30% in May.

Government shutdowns are costly, impacting services and potentially payments to suppliers and citizens. But politicians never know exactly who will be blamed, and how much, until the shutdown happens. Although this approach didn’t go well for Republicans in 1995-96 or in 2013, there are clearly some people in the party who would like to try it again.

The costs to the economy of a shutdown are definitely negative. But, whereas a debt default by the federal government would amount to falling off a cliff, the costs of a shutdown build more gradually over time. It seems entirely consistent with Trump’s personality and style that he would try such a maneuver and see how it plays with his (slowly dwindling) electoral base.

Of course, there are many wildcards – including the apparently bad relationship between Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. The massive flooding in Texas – and the important helping role that the federal government can play – may also convince the White House that now is not the time for further disruption.

One thing is certain: Mexico is not going to pay for the border wall. What is less clear is how much Americans will be forced to pay – with uncertainty, disruption, and even a government shutdown – if Trump’s version of the wall is ever built.

Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the co-author of White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.

By Simon Johnson

Odiousness Ratings for Public Debt

CAMBRIDGE – On Friday August 25, the US government imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela, restricting the ability of President Nicolás Maduro’s government and its oil company, PDVSA, to issue new debt in American capital markets. The sanctions were imposed in response to the regime’s unconstitutional and fraudulent election of a constituent assembly and the de facto closure of the constitutionally elected National Assembly, with its two-thirds opposition majority.

Well-functioning markets should have shut down the Maduro regime’s access to finance long ago. The fact that they didn’t not only shocked the moral sentiments of many, but also revealed a fundamental defect in sovereign debt markets’ institutional architecture. Little good will come from Venezuela’s economic catastrophe, but one positive outcome would be a reform that puts such markets on a more solid financial – and moral – footing.

All debts imply a commitment by the borrower to repay what was borrowed, with interest. In the case of public debt, the pacta sunt servanda principle implies that future governments are obliged to respect the commitments assumed by their predecessors. But, as Alexander Sack argued in 1927, successor governments should not always do so: “When a despotic regime contracts a debt, not for the needs or in the interests of the state, but rather to strengthen itself, to suppress a popular insurrection, etc., this debt is odious for the people of the entire state.”

According to this doctrine, debt incurred by “odious” regimes should not be enforceable, because the lender should have known that the debt was incurred without the consent of the people or for their benefit. As Sack put it: “This debt does not bind the nation; it is a debt of the regime, a personal debt contracted by the ruler, and consequently it falls with the demise of the regime.”

The odious debt idea was revived in an influential 2006 article by Seema Jayachandran and Michael Kremer, and in a 2010 report by the Center for Global Development (CGD), which proposed that economic sanctions include a mechanism aimed at preventing the accumulation of odious obligations. The mechanism would take the form of a declaration that debt issued by a particular government would be considered odious. In effect, this is what the Trump administration has just done.

Such a declaration reduces the flow of funds to odious regimes, owing to the risk that successor governments will renounce their predecessor’s debts without incurring legal and reputational costs (because participating countries’ courts will not enforce the debt contracts).

The CGD report proposes that a regime should be considered odious if it abuses the human rights of the population, employs military coercion, perpetrates electoral fraud, and mismanages or misappropriates public funds.

Clearly, the Venezuelan regime has ticked each of these boxes, making it a poster child for odiousness. But it did not tick them all at once: the plundering of Venezuela’s wealth, the gross violation of human rights, and the unconstitutionality of its decisions did not begin with the election of the new Constituent Assembly on July 30. It was a slow process that started many years earlier.

For example, it is difficult to argue that the destruction of the Venezuelan oil industry, which lost almost half its global market share since President Hugo Chávez took power nearly 20 years ago, was carried out in the interest of the Venezuelan people. And it happened amid the biggest and longest oil-price boom in history, at a time when the country was sitting on the world’s largest reserves and PDVSA was borrowing on a massive scale.

It is even harder to argue that PDVSA’s dollar-denominated debt was legitimate when it was sold for local currency at below-market prices, to politically connected individuals, who often borrowed the needed bolivars overnight from public-sector banks, just to flip the bonds immediately to Wall Street. As Barclay’s Alejandro Grisanti documented in 2008, beneficiaries pocketed an instant profit equal to 20-30% of the face value of the debt.

None of these considerations prevented the Venezuelan regime from borrowing, often at the ridiculous rate of 50%, as happened in May with Goldman Sachs’s purchase of “hunger bonds.” It also did not stop institutions such as JP Morgan from including Venezuelan bonds in their emerging-market bond indexes and purchasing more than $1 billion dollars of these bonds for the exchange-traded and mutual funds that it offers to the public as investment vehicles.

That is why we propose the adoption of an odiousness rating system, akin to credit ratings. While the latter focus on the ability and willingness of the borrower to pay, the odiousness rating would provide an estimate of how likely it is that a court would decide that the debt falls with the regime. The scale would be continuous, going from, say, O (odious repressive dictatorships) to W (well-managed and fully functioning democracies). There would be intermediate notches: dictatorships that promote economic development and thus benefit the population (think of South Korea in the 1970s) and corrupt democracies characterized by economic mismanagement and graft (think of Argentina during the Kirchner administration).

Odiousness ratings could become part of soft international law, used by courts when deciding how to enforce debt contracts, and they could help determine which bonds are included in the calculation of emerging-market indexes. The same country could have bonds which, being issued in different periods, have different odiousness ratings and enforcement probabilities. Because a more odious rating would reduce investors’ appetite for bonds, downgrades could limit the irresponsible debt accumulation and economic disasters brought about by regimes such as Venezuela’s – and possibly accelerate their demise.

There are many open questions. Who should issue the rating? What should the methodology be? How can the rater be protected from political pressure? But all of these questions can be answered. The best way to do that is to start the discussion.

Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former Chief Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, is Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University and a professor of economics at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ugo Panizza is Pictet Chair and Professor of Economics at the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

By Ricardo Hausmann and Ugo Panizza

How to Achieve the SDGs

MEDELLÍN – In September 2015, the leaders of 193 countries agreed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the most ambitious plan ever to promote human development – by 2030. Nearly two years into the process, there are plenty of reasons for concern: the amount of financing raised so far is unlikely to be sufficient, and not all countries have adequate data to measure progress on the ground. It is enough to test even the most diehard optimist.

But there is still plenty of reason for hope. I recently visited Colombia, which, at long last, is leaving behind its decades-long civil conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and setting itself up for SDG success.

In any country, achieving the SDGs will require government, business, aid agencies, multilateral banks, and civil society to work together, adopt flexible approaches, share knowledge, measure progress effectively, and recognize that the various targets are interconnected. Colombia seems to understand this, and is pursuing an integrated approach that leverages the strengths of each actor.

Start with government. According to Colombia’s finance minister, Mauricio Cárdenas Santamaría, the country is localizing the SDGs through the planning department, using the SDG framework to guide reforms relating to the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC, OECD accession, the National Development Plan, and the Paris climate agreement.

Meanwhile, Cárdenas points out, Colombia’s policymakers are taking care to highlight the benefits of these efforts – in areas ranging from health care and education to employment – for the public. They recognize that a top-down approach will not work: to achieve the SDGs, all levels of the government, economy, and society must feel connected to the goals, understanding the concrete impact that achieving them will have.

To get business on board, the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce, led by Monica de Greiff, is raising awareness of the SDGs among its 640,000 members and providing skills training in sectors like construction and health care. The aim is to achieve the SDGs’ targets while increasing the economy’s overall competitiveness.

The good news is that, as Bruce MacMaster of the Bogotá-based business advocacy and think tank ANDI noted, businesses have a strong incentive to consolidate the gains of the peace process, especially in remote areas that have traditionally been cut off from government services. And, indeed, in Medellín, once the illicit drug capital of the world, the leaders of small and large businesses with whom I met are already integrating the SDGs into their business plans and supply chains.

ANDI is working to support that effort, including by raising awareness among diverse industries, from mining to beverages, regarding their interest in keeping their water resources clean and abundant. The result will be more robust protection of watersheds – crucial to meet Goal 6, on water and sanitation, among others.

Of course, in a truly bottom-up process, strong engagement with local communities and civil society is vital. And Colombian youth are already deeply involved in promoting and implementing the SDGs. On my visit, youth leaders in Medellín’s Comuna 13 proudly showed off the progress in their low-income neighborhood.

In the 1990s, when Medellín had the world’s highest homicide rate, Comuna 13 was among the city’s most dangerous areas. Today, it is a vibrant area benefiting from strategic investments in public transportation (including cable cars and new metro stations), education (libraries and schools), and security. Similar strategic investments will be needed throughout the country to ensure that nobody is left behind; the empowerment of women and girls being one crucial objective.

Leadership by municipal and regional governments to facilitate such local-level progress is particularly important. All of the SDGs have targets directly related to the responsibilities of local and regional governments, particularly regarding their role in delivering basic services. But it is SDG 11 – which focuses on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable – that is the lynchpin of the localization process.

That process has the support of the World Bank, the United Nations, and other international development partners, which are working to provide more effective and coordinated support to all levels of government. But success will demand that local governments urgently improve their own capacity in key areas, such as expenditure control, revenue expansion, responsible fund-raising, and creditworthiness.

In Colombia, the municipal development bank FINDETER is aiming to promote such learning, as it strengthens local governments’ public finances and their management and planning capacity. This will enable local governments to invest more effectively in infrastructure and service delivery, thereby advancing local development objectives. Enabling institutions like FINDETER will be critical to localizing the SDG-implementation process to leverage the efforts of local governments elsewhere.

Beyond capacity-building, local governments must engage in smart innovation. In Colombia, innovation has been essential to Medellín’s progress in reducing urban crime and violence, improving mobility, and mitigating social exclusion. The same is true of the city of Bucaramanga’s success in attracting private investment and forging public-private partnerships to improve its competitiveness.

Careful planning processes, including a strong national framework and effective monitoring, are needed to support such innovation and anticipate potential challenges and shocks. For example, in Colombia, obstacles may arise from continued drug trafficking, as well as from the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, which is causing thousands of desperately poor people to pour across Colombia’s border.

Colombia still has a long way to go before achieving the SDGs. But its localized and integrated approach has put it on the right path. Other countries would do well to follow suit.

Mahmoud Mohieldin is the World Bank Group’s Senior Vice President for the 2030 Development Agenda, United Nations Relations, and Partnerships, and is a former minister of investment of Egypt.

By Mahmoud Mohieldin

This Thing Called the American Dream

NEW YORK – In 1968, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson mused about “this Death of the American Dream thing.” But what was this thing called the American Dream? What made it uniquely American?

For some, the Dream was Americans’ belief that their economy was a cornucopia of goods sure to bring a standard of living unimaginable in other economies: the dream of unrivaled plenty and comfort. But, while America had a superior wage level in the 1700s, Britain nearly closed the wage gap with America by the 1880s, and Germany came almost as close by 1913. Germany and France caught up with America by the 1970s.

For some economists, the Dream was the hope of an improving standard of living: the dream of progress. The economist Raj Chetty has been gauging the improvement people have made over what their parents had. He found that in 1940, nearly all young Americans – 90% of them, to be precise – had a household income higher than their parents had when they were young. That high percentage largely reflects America’s rapid productivity growth, which boosted wage rates. Yet from 1890 to 1940, rapid productivity growth was normal in Britain, Germany, and France as well – as it was in the “30 Glorious Years” from 1945 to 1975. So if the Dream was progress, Europeans could have dreamed of progress, too.

For many others, the Dream referred to the hope of America’s deprived – stirred by Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Rawls, and Richard Rorty – that their country would somehow end the injustice of pay so low that it isolates them from the life of the country: the dream of inclusion. Yet such a dream could not be unique to the poor and marginalized in America. Certainly Arabs and Roma in Europe have dreamed of being integrated into society.

For other scholars, such as Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, the American Dream is about mobility more generally. It is a hope held by Americans, in the working and middle classes as well as the working poor, of being lifted to a higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder, not a rise of the ladder itself: the dream of a higher income or social station relative to the average. In fact, from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth, structural shifts wrought by technological change and demographics in America’s market economy lifted many participants – while dropping others. Yet it is doubtful that this “musical chairs” was unique to Americans. From 1880 well into the 1920s, Germans and French saw their economies transformed by globalization; Britons had that experience even earlier.

What made the American Dream distinctive was neither the hope of winning the lottery nor of being buoyed by national market forces or public policy. It was the hope of achieving things, with all that that entails: drawing on one’s personal knowledge, trusting one’s intuition, venturing into the unknown. It reflected the deep need of these Americans to have the experience of succeeding at something: a craftsman’s gratification at seeing his mastery result in better work, or a merchant’s satisfaction at seeing “his ship come in.” It was success that mattered, not relative success (would anyone want to be the sole achiever?). And the process may have mattered more than the success.

There is abundant evidence of this goal, as Americans worked it into their books and plays. Mark Twain, though a dark writer, appreciated the quest for success of his young subjects. At the end of his 1885 classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Finn aims to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest...” Hollywood writers found other words for it. In the film Little Caesar (1931) Rico says, “Money’s okay, but it ain’t everything. Be somebody….Have your own way or nothing.” In A Star is Born (1937), the aspiring singer Esther Blodgett exclaims that “I’m going out and have a real life! I’m gonna be somebody!” And in On the Waterfront (1954), Terry Malloy laments to his brother Charley “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody...”

Of course, dreaming of success could not have been widespread – a national phenomenon – had working Americans not had an economy that gave participants the freedom to be enterprising: to try new ways and conceive new things. And dreams of success could not have become as widespread as they did had Americans not perceived that they could succeed regardless of their national origin and their social status.

Observing that enterprise, exploration, and creation could be engaging, even engrossing, and deeply gratifying, Americans came to view working in businesses, from rural areas to cities, as a path to the Good Life. And that life’s rewards were not just money. To suppose that money was their focus – even in their dreams – is to miss what was distinctive in American life.

From the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, Americans were proving the wisdom of philosophers from Montaigne and Voltaire to Hegel and –a hit in America – Nietzsche: that the good life is about acting on the world and making “your garden grow,” not padding your bank account. Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of Mass Flourishing, is Director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University.

The Achilles Heel of Putin’s Regime

WASHINGTON, DC – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority is weaker than it seems. In fact, the bedrock of Putin’s power – the clientelist economic arrangements that he has assiduously consolidated over the past generation – has become the main threat to his political survival. The reason is simple: the lack of credible property rights under Putin’s system of crony capitalism forces senior Russian officials and oligarchs to hold their money abroad, largely within the jurisdictions of the Western governments against which Putin rails.

With the help of carefully selected loyalists, Putin has established three circles of power: the state, state-owned corporations, and loyalists’ “private” companies. The process began during his tenure as chairman of the Federal Security Service, from 1998 to 1999, when he wielded control over the secret police.

But it was Putin’s first term as president, from 2000 to 2004, that amounts to a true masterpiece of power consolidation by a budding authoritarian. First, in the summer of 2000, he took charge of Russian television. Next, he established his “vertical of power” over the state administration and the regional administrations, as well as his “dictatorship of law” over the judicial system. And then, in the 2003 parliamentary election, Putin gained solid control over both the State Duma (the lower house) and the Federation Council (the upper house) of the Russian legislature. At the pinnacle of state power, the Security Council, he installed three KGB generals: Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev, and Aleksandr Bortnikov.

To strengthen the second circle of his power, Putin seized control over the state corporations one by one, beginning with Gazprom in May 2001, by appointing loyalists as chief executives and chairmen. The three top managers of state-owned companies are Igor Sechin of Rosneft, Aleksei Miller of Gazprom, and Sergei Chemezov of Rostec.
Putin clinched his authority over the state sector in 2007, during his second term, with the creation of vast corporations that have since expanded substantially, with cheap state funding, often securing monopolies in their industries. Because these companies are treated as a source of power and rents, rather than of economic growth, they are peculiarly disinterested in competition, innovation, entrepreneurship, and productivity. The only relevant standard of corporate governance is loyalty to Putin.

Then there is the third circle of power, comprising Putin’s most powerful cronies – the top four appear to be Gennady Timchenko, Arkady Rotenberg, Yuri Kovalchuk, and Nikolai Shamalov – and their companies. Their behavior is usually viewed as kleptocratic, though Putin has used his legislative authority to ensure that many of their dubious activities are technically legal. For example, cronies are entitled to buy assets from state companies at discretionary prices and fill government procurement orders with no competition.

The system Putin has created is strikingly similar to the czarist system that prevailed until the “Great Reforms” of the 1860s. Indeed, Putin is often called a new czar, because his power is legally unlimited (though his preoccupation with opinion polls shows that public sentiment does matter). Rather than promoting institutional development, he has pursued far-reaching deinstitutionalization, aimed at concentrating executive, legislative, and judicial powers in his own hands.

But in the absence of credible property rights, wealthy Russians, including Putin’s own cronies, know that the only safe places to keep their assets are abroad. And, thanks to a fully convertible ruble and the absence of restrictions on capital outflows, they can transfer their gains to offshore tax havens. This has naturally created a fourth circle of power, over which Putin has no control: the offshore tax havens themselves. And those havens are no longer as secure as they once were.

With the Financial Action Task Force having reduced bank secrecy in Switzerland and cleaned up the many small island tax havens, there are two major remaining destinations: the United States and the United Kingdom, both of which permit anonymous currency inflows and allow asset owners to hide their identity. In the US, tens of billions of dollars move through law firms’ opaque bank accounts each year, facilitating money laundering.

In general, Western governments do not really exert much control over such activities within their borders. In fact, while the assets of Putin’s cronies in the US and the European Union are supposed to be frozen, according to the sanctions imposed after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, hardly any have been found.
It is time to change this, by initiating comprehensive investigations into the assets of sanctioned people. The US and the UK, which presumably hold the vast majority of Russian offshore wealth, must also catch up with their counterparts in most of Europe by prohibiting the anonymity of beneficiary owners. The US should also proscribe the use of attorney-client privilege to transfer anonymous or dirty money into the country.

The good news is that progress may be on the horizon. A new bill, which US President Donald Trump signed into law on August 2, calls for far-reaching investigations into “senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation” – including “spouses, children, parents, and siblings” – and their assets within 180 days.

As the veteran liberal Russian politician Leonid Gozman points out, “To judge from the statements of our propagandists, the Russian state is very valuable,” but it is also “a very fragile construct that can be destroyed by anything,” from the fight against corruption to efforts to oust kleptocratic officials. Given the vast stocks of Russian capital that have piled up in New York, London, and elsewhere, the West is ideally positioned to exploit this fragility.

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. He is the author of Ukraine: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It and, most recently, Europe's Growth Challenge (with Simeon Djankov). He is currently writing a book on Russia’s crony capitalism.

China’s Misguided Exchange-Rate Machinations

BEIJING – On August 11, 2015, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) established that the central parity of the renminbi’s exchange rate against the US dollar would be set with reference to the previous trading day’s closing price, within a 2% band. It was a bold step toward a more flexible, market-driven exchange rate. But the announcement of the reform caused the market to panic, triggering a 3% decline in the renminbi in just four trading days. So it was quickly abandoned.

That policy reversal, while understandable, is regrettable. For the rest of 2015, the PBOC struggled to prevent the renminbi from weakening. Having spent a huge amount of foreign-exchange reserves, it decided in February 2016 to introduce a new rule for setting the central parity rate.

According to the replacement rule, the central parity rate would take into account not just the previous trading day’s closing price, but also the “theoretical exchange rate” that would keep the index of the China Foreign Exchange Trade System, a 24-currency basket, unchanged over the previous 24 hours. In other words, whenever there was a change in the US dollar index, the PBOC would have to intervene in the foreign-exchange market to align the market-determined renminbi-dollar exchange rate with the theoretical exchange rate that kept the CFETS index stable.

According to the PBOC, with an uncertain dollar index, the introduction of a basket of currencies into the price-setting process was needed to enable two-way fluctuations of the renminbi-dollar exchange rate. The market was allowed to verify whether the PBOC had followed the rate-setting rule, but it didn’t determine the exchange rate; that task was carried out by the PBOC.

In any case, when the dollar index is rising, the new rule seemed to work just fine. Given persistent downward pressure on the exchange rate, if the PBOC allowed the renminbi to fall against the rising dollar index, the CFETS index would stay more or less constant. This meant that the PBOC could follow the rate-setting rule without resorting to intervention too often.

But, all else being equal, if the dollar index was falling, the PBOC would have to set a higher central parity rate for the renminbi. This implies that the PBOC could be forced to sell its US dollar reserves, already substantially depleted, to push up artificially the closing price of the renminbi and keep the spot rate within the 2% band.

In July 2017, the PBOC decided to make an additional change to the rate-setting rule to correct for “big market swings” and “irrational herd behavior.” By introducing a so-called “countercyclical factor” to the rate-setting equation, the PBOC attempted to temper the disproportionate impact of depreciation expectations, relative to improvements in the Chinese economy’s fundamentals, on the exchange rate.

The logic is debatable. But the real problem with the change is that no one outside the PBOC knows how the countercyclical factor is quantified, much less how it is weighted against the previous day’s closing price or the theoretical exchange rate. As a result, the market does not merely have a substantially reduced role in setting the exchange rate; it can’t even check whether the PBOC is following its rate-setting rule for the central parity. This means that the monetary authorities have even more discretion than they had before.

The August 2015 reforms were rightly aimed at making China’s exchange-rate system more transparent, market-driven, and flexible. With the new rule, the PBOC effectively backpedaled. And it didn’t have to: with the benefit of hindsight, it seems reasonable to assume that, had the PBOC simply been more patient, it could have stuck with the August 2015 reform. Within a few weeks or even days, calm probably would have returned to the market, and the PBOC would have made important progress.

In recent months, the Chinese economy has shown credible signs of stabilization; capital outflows have ebbed, at least for the time being; and the financial market has remained much calmer than in 2015. In this more favorable context, the PBOC, rather than churning out unnecessarily complicated new rate-setting rules, needs to return to reform.

Yu Yongding, a former president of the China Society of World Economics and director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, served on the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China from 2004 to 2006.

By Yu Yongding

Trump’s Corporate Lackeys

LONDON – In mid-August, alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a demonstration that ended with a white supremacist driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19. President Donald Trump responded not by condemning the racist terror, but rather by blaming “many sides” for the violence. For many members of his manufacturing council and the Strategy and Policy Forum, it was the last straw. But the camel’s back actually broke a long time ago.

The first few council members who resigned were labeled “grandstanders” by Trump. But then a trickle of resignations became a wave, and Trump, apparently fearful of a full-scale revolt by the business leaders who were supposed to advise him, quickly dissolved the two economic councils, tweeting that he didn’t want to put pressure on their members.

Perhaps he need not have worried. Yes, some members of Trump’s business advisory bodies took a stand. But it was too little, too late. After all, as appalling as Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville was, no one could credibly claim to have been shocked by it. On the contrary, from day one, there were clear signs that this administration was toxic. Even the councils themselves were little more than a tool for boosting Trump’s ego, by stoking his self-image as a businessman’s businessman.

Yet, while a few council members resigned after Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the majority remained, owing to an overriding desire for prestige and access. They participated in photo opportunities wearing painted-on smiles, nodding and shaking one another’s hands. They surely relished sharing anecdotes with their investors and boards that began with, “When I was at the White House last week …”

Blatant ethics violations? Check. Repeated lies regarding ties with Russia? Check. Tweeted threats of nuclear war? Check. Only when Trump implicitly validated literal Nazism did they feel compelled to weigh their options.

These business leaders cannot credibly claim that they believed, until last week, that they could be a moderating influence on Trump. If that were the case, there would have been some indication of it over the last seven months. But there was none. On the contrary, Trump repeatedly went off script, revealing beliefs and feelings that showed him in the worst possible light.

In fact, by choosing to remain on Trump’s councils for so long, these business leaders implicitly endorsed his authority, which, as he showed time and again, he was unfit to wield. For members of Trump’s economic councils, no less than for members of his administration, standing beside the president amounted to standing with him. In effect, these leaders validated Trump’s outrageous positions on a broad range of issues, from his plan to build a wall with Mexico to his repeated attempts to bar citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

No one should underestimate the impact of this stance. Trump’s economic councils comprised the heads of some of the world’s largest companies. Their actions matter. Their decision to associate themselves with an administration launching repeated assaults on democratic principles is highly significant – and not just for the US. In fact, the firms that were represented – such as Walmart, PepsiCo, JPMorgan Chase, and General Motors – together affect the lives of most people on the planet.

Within their firms, these leaders espouse the importance of diversity and action to combat climate change. They claim to value their role as global stakeholders. They tout their standing in America’s “best employers” rankings. But, by choosing to remain silent about Trump’s behavior and policies, such assertions became worthless.

In a global context, continued collaboration with Trump’s White House should be viewed as akin to doing business with – and thereby propping up – corrupt governments. With the exception of the Soviet bloc, no modern dictatorship has been established and sustained without the supporting role of business, be it diamond and coltan mining in conflict zones in Africa or oil companies in the Niger Delta. Companies like Bayer and BASF (then part of chemical giant IG Farben), Siemens, and the Volkswagen Group are still remembered for having profited from their close collaboration with the Nazis.

CEOs worldwide must recognize not just their influence and authority – of which most are probably quite proud – but also their responsibility to advance humane values and goals. They must stand for something greater than their own self-interest or the returns they are delivering to investors. If the moral imperative of standing up to oppression is not enough to drive a company to act, perhaps the need to protect the company’s reputation will be.

One might argue that, now that Trump’s economic councils have been disbanded, the issue is moot. But companies’ responsibility extends beyond participation in those councils. Now is not a time for politicking or parsing words. Business leaders must stand up and show genuine leadership, integrity, and respect for ethics. They must make clear that they do not stand with Trump, as he drives his country toward destruction.

This does not apply just to Trump or the US. Business leaders everywhere should use their influence to stand up to authoritarian governments wherever they are in the world. They and their companies have never been more powerful. They should be using their might to fight for a better future, not for a seat at the tyrant’s table.

Lucy P. Marcus is CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting.

By Lucy P. Marcus

A Better Investment Framework for Africa

BERLIN – Africa’s enormous economic potential is not news. But, until now, policymakers around the world have not successfully defined the political and economic steps that must be taken to enable Africa to realize this potential fully. That is why the German G20 presidency has launched its G20 Africa Partnership initiative.

At the core of this effort to intensify cooperation with Africa lies the G20 Compact with Africa (CWA). The CWA offers interested African countries the opportunity to improve conditions for private investment, including in infrastructure.

The CWA’s structure is straightforward: African countries, together with their bilateral partners and international financial organizations with proven expertise on Africa (such as the African Development Bank, the World Bank Group, and the International Monetary Fund), will jointly develop, coordinate, and implement tailor-made measures. The main aim is to lower the level of risk for private investments, by improving economic and financial conditions and strengthening institutions. Over time, the resulting increase in investment will boost growth and productivity, create jobs, and raise living standards, as envisioned in the African Union’s own Agenda 2063 program.

The CWA stands for a new approach in international development policy. Of course, we are not reinventing the wheel. But the mode of cooperation and coordination among the many bilateral and multilateral players, as well as the commitment of the African countries, is something new.

We view the CWA as a long-term, demand-driven process. It is open to all African countries that are interested in improving their investment environment on a sustainable basis. But, most important, the decision-makers are the African countries themselves. They will determine what they want to do to improve conditions for private investment, with whom they want to cooperate, and in what form. Only if the African countries “own” the initiative will it be a success.

So far, five African countries – Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and Tunisia – have committed to full participation in the CWA. Ghana and Ethiopia will join this month.

CWA countries, the international financial organizations, and bilateral partners are working closely together on the details of the country-specific compacts. At the G20 meeting in Baden-Baden in March, some members – and also non-G20 countries – indicated that they would like to become bilateral partners. The German government will also contribute via the bilateral framework – called a “Marshall Plan with Africa” – developed by our Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation.

Our main job, however, is to bring private investors and African countries together. With the upcoming G20 Africa Partnership Conference in Berlin on June 12-13, we will provide a platform for these African countries to reach out to investors in order to enhance the continent’s engagement with the private sector. CWA countries will present the key elements of their investment compacts in a roundtable with investors. They will also outline the key industries and infrastructure projects for which they are seeking private funds.

After the Berlin meeting, the implementation phase of the CWA initiative will start. The country teams will further specify their compact measures and consider the milestones for their implementation. At this point, dialogue with investors will be particularly significant, because such conversations will help African countries to establish which measures and instruments are crucial for engagement with the private sector.

To be successful, this initiative cannot focus on short-term results. It needs to continue beyond Germany’s G20 presidency in 2017/2018 and to be supported by the G20 over the longer term. Germany, of course, will continue to take responsibility for the CWA’s implementation. The G20 will be informed on a regular basis about how the investment compacts develop.

Most important, by sending a signal to other African countries, progress in the participating countries will determine whether the CWA becomes a success for all of Africa. If all parties involved – African countries, international organizations, bilateral partners, and, not least, investors – collaborate closely, the CWA has the capacity to promote sustainable, robust, and inclusive economic growth throughout the continent.

Wolfgang Schäuble is Germany’s Federal Minister of Finance.

Are Nazis as American as Apple Pie?

NEW HAVEN – Is the United States threatened by Nazism? The short answer is no, notwithstanding the frightening events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend.

In Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, white nationalists, separatists, neo-Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and other likeminded groups rallied behind Swastika banners and marched in a Nazi-style torchlight procession. By the end of the next day, there had also been thuggish violence. One white supremacist went so far as to drive a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring 19 others.

The groups responsible for the violence in Charlottesville reveled in US President Donald Trump’s election last November. And Trump has often hesitated to disavow them; during the election campaign, when former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke publicly backed him, Trump was scandalously slow to reject Duke and his followers. Trump also repeatedly incited violence during the campaign, while evincing a bottomless affection for authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After the events in Charlottesville, Trump initially offered a bland statement that condemned hate “on many sides,” thereby drawing a moral equivalence between the racists and those who gathered to oppose them. Two days later, under intensifying pressure, Trump issued a more forceful statement, in which he explicitly condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists, only to revert the following day to blaming “both sides” for the violence.

All of this is abhorrent. But any sober observer can see that the US is still a long way from the nightmarish atmosphere of Germany in 1933. American democratic institutions are holding up, just as they did in the crisis years of the 1930s. Opposition parties have not been banned, and the courts have not lost their independent authority.

Moreover, Trump is not the supreme leader of a political party with a paramilitary arm. There are no facilities such as Dachau, Auschwitz, or Treblinka under construction. Even Trump’s planned border wall with Mexico remains stuck in the planning stage, with no funding from the US Congress. And Congress is not about to pass an Enabling Act conferring dictatorial powers on the president, as the Reichstag did for Hitler in March 1933. Last but not least, the American press is more tenacious and energized than it has been in years.

Trump’s yearning for authoritarian rule is clear for all to see. But he will not achieve it. There will be no Nazi dictatorship in America.

But whether America is threatened by such a dictatorship is not the right question. American democratic institutions might be holding up, but history has taught us that they are not immune to the machinations of racially virulent political programs. In fact, the US produced some of the laws that would later serve as a foundation for the Nazi movement in Germany.

America, with its vibrant democratic institutions, was the leading racist jurisdiction in the world in the early twentieth century. An obvious example is the Jim Crow South, where white legislatures passed laws imposing racial segregation and reversing many of the gains of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. But that is hardly the only example. Those on the far right in Europe also admired America’s early-twentieth-century immigration policies, which were designed to exclude “undesirable” races. In his manifesto Mein Kampf, Hitler singled out America as “the one state” that was progressing toward the creation of a healthy race-based order.

Indeed, during this period, 30 US states had anti-miscegenation laws intended to safeguard racial purity. America’s democratic institutions did not stand in the way of such policies in the early twentieth century. On the contrary, anti-miscegenation laws were the product of America’s democratic system, which gave full voice to many Americans’ racism. And US courts upheld these legal innovations, using flexible common-law precedents to decide who would acquire the privileged status of “white.”

The Nazis paid close attention. As they concocted their own racial statutes – the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 – they pored over American race law as a model.

So today, instead of asking whether American institutions will survive the Trump presidency, we must ask how American institutions can be put in the service of wrongful ends. After all, while America’s early-twentieth-century race laws are gone, it still has the same overheated democratic order and common-law flexibility that it had back then. These institutions might no longer produce Jim Crow laws; but the American criminal-justice system, for example, remains a poster child for institutionalized racism.

Americans should be ashamed that their country’s institutions laid the groundwork for Nazi race law. But they should not be worrying about the threat of renascent Nazism, despite Trump’s clear ambivalence in condemning white supremacists. Rather, Americans should worry about the potential of their institutions to facilitate evils that are, as loath as we are to admit it, as American as apple pie.

James Q. Whitman is Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale Law School, and the author of Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law.

By James Q. Whitman

Surviving America’s Political Meltdown

NEW YORK – The US is in the midst of a political meltdown, unable to manage a domestic economic agenda or a coherent foreign policy. The White House is in turmoil; Congress is paralyzed; and the world is looking on in astonishment and dread. If we are to survive and overcome this collapse, we must understand its sources.

There are two power centers in Washington, DC: the White House and the Capitol. Both are in disarray, but for different reasons. The dysfunctionality of the White House is largely a matter of President Donald Trump’s personality. To many experts, Trump’s behavior – grandiose self-regard, pathological lying, lack of remorse or guilt, expressive shallowness, parasitic lifestyle, impulsiveness, failure to accept responsibility for his own actions, and short-term marital relationships – are symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

The consequences could be dire. Pathological narcissists have a tendency to indulge in violent conflicts and wars (think of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam or of Andrew Jackson and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans). At a minimum, Trump lacks the psychological characteristics needed for constructive governance: honesty, dignity, competence, empathy, relevant experience, and the capacity to plan. According to some observers, Trump also shows signs of diminished mental capacity.

The hope in Washington is that “adults in the room” will keep Trump’s dangerous tendencies in check. But the “adults” in Trump’s administration are increasingly military figures rather than civilians, including three generals (John Kelly, the new White House Chief of Staff, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis). Wise civilian leaders are the key to peace, especially given that America’s vast war machine is always revving. Recall John F. Kennedy’s military advisers, who advocated war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or consider Mattis’s anti-Iran belligerence.

There are two other escape valves: the 25th Amendment, which charts a course for removing a president who is unable to discharge the responsibilities of office, and impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Both measures are extreme in the US constitutional order, and both would depend on the agreement of Republican leaders. Nonetheless, one or the other may prove necessary and even urgent in the event that Trump’s psychological instability or political weakness leads him to launch a war.

The political meltdown in Congress is less dramatic, but serious nonetheless. There, the cause is not a personality disorder; it’s money. The legislative branch has been deeply corrupted by corporate lobbying and campaign contributions. Two brothers, the industrialists David and Charles Koch, worth a combined $100 billion, virtually own the votes, and voices, of Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The result is politically perverse. Ryan and McConnell relentlessly push legislation favored by the Koch Brothers rather than the American people. The attempted repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health-care legislation, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) had nothing to do with voters’ views or interests; it was simply what the Koch brothers (and other Republican mega-donors) wanted.

That’s why the repeal legislation was kept secret until the last moment and was never subjected to expert testimony or analysis – or even considered by a Congressional committee. The legislation could pass only if it was hidden from view and voted on in the middle of the night. In the end, three Republican senators jumped ship, siding with the American people rather than with the Kochs.

Between Trump’s narcissism and the Koch brothers’ money, the US government has become a shambles. Washington is still filled with many smart and talented people of both parties, but America’s political institutions and formal processes are diminished. The federal government is hemorrhaging scientific expertise, as researchers leave or are purged, and as agency budgets are targeted for deep cuts. Seasoned diplomats are flooding out of the State Department. Lobbyists, meanwhile, are installing cronies and hacks throughout the government.

Through the din, new drumbeats of war can be heard, most ominously against Iran and North Korea. Is it posturing or real? Nobody knows. Trump’s foreign and military policies are now announced in early-morning tweets, without the foreknowledge of the White House staff or senior officials. The situation is dangerous and deteriorating.

I suggest three immediate steps, and a fourth longer-term step.

The first step is to take Trump off Twitter. The US – and the world – needs public policy by consultation and deliberation, not one man’s worsening pathology. The American people, by a large margin, concur that Trump’s tweets are hurting national security and the presidency.

Second, congressional leaders should agree, on a bipartisan basis, to constrain Trump’s belligerent proclivities. Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution vests the authority to declare war with Congress, and Congress needs to reassert that authority now, before it’s too late.

Third, the world’s major powers – most urgently, America’s NATO allies, China, and Russia – should make clear that any unilateral US attack on Iran or North Korea would constitute a grave and illegal violation of the peace, and that matters of war and peace must be agreed within the UN Security Council. If the US had heeded the UN Security Council’s collective wisdom in the recent past, it would have avoided several ongoing disasters, including the chaos in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and saved trillions of dollars and many hundreds of thousands of lives.

The fourth, longer-term step is constitutional reform to move away the US away from its volatile presidential system to a parliamentary system, or at least to a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, as in France. The power of the president – and therefore the danger of a runaway presidency – is far too great.

Much more needs to be done to restore democratic legitimacy in the US, including introduction of stricter limits on campaign financing and lobbying. First and foremost, however, we must survive the dangerous Trump presidency by preserving the peace.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

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