As you are aware, I have several hobbies and interest, and economics is one of them. Economics has theorists from many different viewpoints, and the commonality among them is that there is no “school of thought” that explains everything. So new schools get developed to explain the current events, or old ones that were discredits are resuscitated, but unfortunately we too often neglect the past, or at least the examples of the past. Too often the obvious gets ignored. For example, we cave money because we know there will be ups and downs. Individual do it, so why don’t governments? We know that we will pay for a product we need. Demand drives the price. If more people want it, the price goes up. Been that way for…. ever maybe? So in my recent reading I came across several musing that keep getting talked about by political pundits, but may be they are not what they appear to be. So let’s take a look at a couple of these that might just affect us….
Is supply side economics is a myth developed by corporate economists to argue for lower taxes. The concept is to give tax breaks to encourage manufacturers and businesses to produce more product which will reduce costs. You know this is patently false. Try selling your reclaimed water at a discount (or give it away) when it is raining. Demand drives the economy, not supply. Every economics student learns this in economics 101. The supply side economics school developed as a means to explain stagflation in the 1970s. The idea what to give tax cuts to those who invested, so they would invest more to make new products, which would trickle down to the rest of us. Still doesn’t work. Why? What they ignored was that the US industrial sector had saturated the US economy with goods and could not grow without new sectors to sell to. Hence the push on Nixon to open up China to foreign trade and investment. But opening foreign markets was great, except they could not afford our products. So we had to make the products there, increase local wages so they could buy the products, and still shipped products back at a cheaper cost that to build them in America. The idea is not new – recall Henry Ford set up the assembly line to cuts costs to allow him to increase wages so his workers could buy his cars. The obvious question is when we saturate China, then what? Africa? Then what? The economy cannot grow faster than the increase in population. So why does supply side economics keep getting traction? Did we mention those tax cuts….
To the big fashion in Germany and the EU is austerity. Austerity is an economic idea that never seems to die despite very limited success and many, many failures. It sounds great – cut costs and balance the budget while cutting revenues (income). Ok, so let’s see how that works in your household – you quit your middle class job and take a minimum wage job. You cut your expenses. Except you can’t sell your house without a loss (and you do not have the cash to make up the difference) and you need your car to get to your new job. But austerity says that if you eat rice, beans, cereal and Ramen noodles, you will soon be far better off than you are now. No one will suffer. Do you believe it? Do you wonder why the Greeks and Irish are not doing so well today and why people are restless? They used to devalue their currency, but the Euro prevents this. They do not have away out. Meanwhile Iceland devalued currency, let the banks fail, took over the bank assets, and are doing much better. Austerity was not the option…. Just saying… And who suffers the most? Not the high income folks.
Tax cuts stimulate the economy. Sounds great. But, from 1944 to 1963, the income tax rate on the highest earning bracket in 1960 was 90% over $200,000. Yes 90%! The economy was great. The middle class was born. House ownerships jumped. Education was up. The economy in the 1970s stagnated after we cut tax rates. We cut the income tax rate in the 1980s, but raised other taxes, and things improved, but then declined. The economy improved after the Bush tax hike in 1991. It did not improve after the Bush tax cuts in 2001. Interesting in their book Presimetrics, Mike Kimel and Mike Kanell noted that higher taxes seem to correlate with a better economy. Is it because investors can’t sell stock so easily when they made a profit so corporations can count of investments longer? Or is it that the increase in revenues allows the federal government to invest in more research and development that further stimulates the economy? Did we mention the tax cuts favor the wealthy?
The moral of the story is that utility managers cannot ignore the economic realities around them. We cannot be trapped by the musings of people who have hidden agendas, which means that our understanding of the way things are must extend beyond the utility itself. The economy, economics, monetary policy, tax policy, demographics and change are areas that utility managers need to be current on. Engineers and managers often understand these issues easily (most are mathematical) but we tend to focus only in out areas. We need to become educated. Recall the earlier blog where I noted the city manager who realized later that the reason elected officials tended to bad alternatives was they were being lobbied to approve the poorer options because their clients could make money from it. You know many ideas that will be lobbied to elected officials and business people in the future. You need to become educated on these ideas and how they affect your utility. You know that rates that are too low will not increase revenues. You know you need to expand sales when possible, perhaps serving new areas, and making the investments for same. You know that not spending money will only increase the risk of failure in the system. You know that not increasing pay will disenfranchise employees. Prepare for these assaults so you can lead your utility down the proper path.