Sunday, December 4, 2016

Noonan v. Cochrane on JFK’s 1962 Jawboning of Big Steel

When I was in graduate school, one of my favorite seminars featured Walter Heller telling us about his days at the Council of Economic Advisers during the Presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Every time I had to endure a course in business writing, I recalled a marvelous story from Dr. Heller who was very good as clear and concise writing. While Kennedy enjoyed chalk and talk discussions of the multiplier, LBJ was more of a CEO President who abhorred staples in memos as any memo that got to his desk was only one page long. It seems Treasury had a habit of writing 3 page memos which meant the chief of staff wanted the CEA to condense these memos. Heller at first was insulted at these requests but then realized that this put his team in an incredible position of controlling economic advice that the President received. Heller was my source for this:
The big Keynesian fiscal experiment was that 1964 tax cut, which did seem to work fairly well as the economy returned to full employment by late 1965. While Paul and I were both too young in 1965 to have been included in the discussions between the Council of Economic Advisors and President Johnson, I have had the pleasure of hearing from those who were what kind of macroeconomic advice the CEA gave the President during December 1965. Realizing that the economy was at full employment and seeing the triple whammy of tax cuts, proposed Great Society domestic spending, and the run-up in Defense Department spending from the Vietnam War, the CEA strongly urged the President to push for fiscal restraint lest the Federal Reserve would have to raise interest rates to choke off excessive demand. The President fired back that the Great Society was important to him and that he was not ready to pull out of Vietnam. The President also noted that getting a reversal of the 1964 tax cuts would be politically difficult. The Federal Reserve did raise interest rates in 1966 leading to the 1966 Credit Crunch, which held inflation at bay. However, the Federal Reserve later reversed course unfortunately. So we eventually got a delayed and lukewarm version of the fiscal restraint that the CEA recommended way back in late 1965 – as Paul noted. Too little and too late. For Schlaes to blame the run-up in inflation on the Keynesian economists that advised President Johnson only shows she has absolutely no clue.
I recount this because a couple of conservatives are getting the discussions of the 1960’s a bit wrong again. John Cochrane is not happy with the latest from Peggy Noonan. He notes the following from her WSJ op-ed:
It was 1961 and the new president, John F. Kennedy, had been trying to signal to big business that they could trust him.. His impulses were those of a moderate of his era: show budgetary constraint, keep costs and prices down, prevent inflation.....That September Kennedy asked the industry to forgo a price increase. He asked the steelworkers union for wage demands... Early in 1962 his labor secretary, Arthur Goldberg, put together a deal. In the spring the union and the steel companies accepted it. Everyone understood the industry would not raise prices. A few days later Roger Blough, chairman of the board of mighty U.S. Steel, asked to see the president. He handed him a four-page mimeographed statement announcing his company would raise steel prices $6 a ton. ...Soon Bethlehem Steel raised its prices. Other companies followed. Now Kennedy was enraged. Accepting Blough’s decision would undo all his wage-price guideposts. It would also constitute a blow to the prestige of the presidency. And labor would never trust him again.
He noted more of her op-ed to point out that Noonan claimed that Kennedy’s jawboning was good policy to which he argued:
No, Peggy. Crucially, he was wrong on the policy. No, we do not fight inflation by jawboning companies and unions not to raise prices. That does not "benefit the American people." This isn't fancy economics. Leaders from Emperor Diocletian to Nicolás Maduro have tried to quell inflation by muscling businesses -- sending police to terrorize businessmen in their homes -- not to raise prices, and it always ends with more muscle and more inflation -- as Kennedy's did. He may have "thought" he was right. His Keynesian advisers had also forgotten lessons of two thousand years of history and thought jawboning an excellent idea. But this is precisely why we have a rule of law -- so that leaders who "think" they are right about the proper level of steel prices cannot wreck the economy.
Alas, Dr. Heller’s seminar did not address this episode so we really do not know what the Council of Economic Advisers said about all of this but so let’s try this:
The Democrat, after just a year in office, was concerned about potentially rising inflation. His administration set an informal but well-publicized target of having wage increases and price hikes match productivity increases. Meanwhile, Steelworkers’ bargaining over a contract with the nation’s steel companies was getting nowhere. The administration intervened. It didn’t want a rerun of the 4-month steel strike of 1959 under GOP President Eisenhower. Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg, a longtime union counsel, mediated the talks. The two sides reached agreement on March 31. The pact, with ten of the nation’s 11 steel companies, called for an increase in fringe benefits worth 10 cents an hour in 1962, but no wage hikes that year. Then-AFL-CIO President George Meany said that in the pact, the union “settled on a wage increase figure somewhat less than the Steelworkers thought they would get.” Kennedy praised the contract as “obviously non-inflationary” and said both the USW and the steel firms showed “industrial statesmanship of the highest order.” The agreement also implicitly said the companies would not raise prices, as that would be inflationary. But on April 10, Roger Blough, CEO of U.S. Steel, the largest of the firms, with 25% of the market, met Kennedy in the Oval Office and told him the company was immediately raising prices by $6 a ton – and that other steel companies would follow. Six did. The 3.5% hike enraged the president. What he said in public was biting – but he was even more caustic in private.
Arthur Goldberg was a labor lawyer representing the United Steelworkers of America before he became Kennedy’s labor secretary. So why did Ms. Noonan note that this episode was part of the negotiations of this union and big steel? Maybe Noonan does not want to bring up the issue of wage floors and monopsony power. I threw in my two cents but please read Noah Smith. It strikes me that the market for steel workers in the 1960’s was more akin to the monopsony model than perfect competition, which is why we needed a steel workers union.

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