With an unemployment rate now down to 4.2% and the average wage rising 3.1% in the past year, the U.S. is finally recovering from the Great Recession which ended in June 2009. My last several posts have described an optimistic scenario for the U.S. economy going forward.
The American idea is thriving. The U.S. is the world’s most competitive large economy. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are in the process of revolutionizing all aspects of life, all over the world. Productivity growth in the digital industries has grown at the annual rate of 2.7%, much faster than for physical industries. Democracy is mostly flourishing around the world.
Ecommerce is one example of a thriving industry. Fulfillment center weekly wages are 31% higher on average than for brick and mortar retail in the same area. Total ecommerce related jobs have increased much faster in the last two years than have traditional retail jobs been lost.
Income inequalitycan be addressed effectively by speeding up economic growth (with tax and regulatory reform), improving educational (especially with early childhood) opportunities and with better training programs for the unemployed and underemployed to qualify them for the millions of skilled jobs going begging for lack of qualified applicants.
One additional feature needed is “A balanced and sensible anti-poverty program,” to help many of the down and out get back on their feet.
The way to accomplish this is with:
Work requirements as a condition of public assistance. The work first approach has been shown to have better outcomes with regard to attachment to the labor force (see above chart) than even approaches which focus on training and education.
Conclusion. The U.S. economy is basically sound. We lead the world in many industries and especially in digital technology. There are lots of good jobs going begging for lack of qualified applicants. The best anti-poverty program is job training.
I have pointed out in a recent post that, not only is the U.S. the world’s most competitive large economy, but also that our per-capita GDP is growing faster than for our nearest rivals.
A particularly vivid example of this dynamism is ecommerce where both the adjusted (gains minus losses) size of the workforce and the average wage are increasing rapidly.
We also know that incomes in the U.S. are rising faster at the high end rather than further down (see chart below). What to do about this has become a major political issue.
Here are my ideas (in rough order of importance):
Economic growth is too slow, averaging just 2% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. It is reasonable to expect that the regulatory reform already underway and the tax reform under consideration in Congress can increase growth to 2.5% per year. Together with our low unemployment rate of 4.2%, this is already leading to more and better paying jobs.
Improve educational opportunities by, for example, making early childhood education widely available to low-income families and attracting the best teachers to the poorest performing schools with targeted bonus pay.
Better vocational and retraining programs to prepare the unemployed and underemployed for the millions of skilled jobs now going begging for a lack of qualified applicants.
Attempt to address the social inequality associated with income inequality, see here. Marriage rates, civic involvement and public trust have all declined significantly in recent years for the lower class. A very difficult problem to solve!
Conclusion. In a free society like the U.S., providing self-help opportunities for advancement is the natural and preferred way of lifting up people who need assistance. The U.S. does a okay job in this respect but there is plenty of room for improvement.
My last post makes the case that the “American Idea” is thriving, contrary to a sense of gloom from many quarters. For example, the Democratic Party is so tied up with complaining about Donald Trump, that it is failing to address the fundamental reason why Mr. Trump was elected President last fall: the plight of blue-collar workers.
For well-known reasons (globalization and the growth of technology), blue-collar workers are not yet enjoying the full benefits of rising prosperity as much as the college educated managerial and professional classes. The basic reason for this is:
Slow economic growth, averaging just 2% of GDP per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Our currently low unemployment rate of 4.2% and the prospects for regulatory reform and tax reform suggest that growth might start picking up soon.
Faster growth is already occurring in the area of ecommerce, see here and here.
Fulfillment center weekly wages are 31% higher on average than for brick-and-mortar retail in the same area.
Ecommerce workers are not likely to be college graduates but need a mixture of physical and cognitive skills.
In the past two years the ecommerce industry has added 178,000 jobs in electronic shopping firms and another 58,000 jobs for express delivery companies. At the same time brick-and-mortar retail full time equivalent jobs have dropped by 123,000.
Americans spend 1.2 billion hours per week shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. Since 2007, roughly 64 million hours per week of these “unpaid hours” have shifted to fulfillment center workers and truck drivers. In this way unpaid household shopping hours are turning into paid market work.
The economics of manufacturing will likely soon be changed in a similar manner from producing and distributing goods in bulk to small-batch manufacturing closer to the customer.
Conclusion. “The internet of goods,” spearheaded by Amazon, has already increased the productivity and wages of many retail (fulfillment center) workers and will soon do the same thing in manufacturing. This is private enterprise at its finest.
The Atlantic monthly magazine is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. In 1857 its founders envisioned that the magazine would “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” In the current issue one of its writers asks, “Is the American Idea Doomed?” and claims that it has few supporters on either the left or the right. Well, I happen to be in the middle and I think the American idea is doing very well indeed.
The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. as the world’s most competitive large economy and, in fact, the U.S. is getting richer faster than anybody else.
Productivity growth in the digital industries has grown at the annual rate of 2.7% over the past 15 years compared with only an anemic .7% annual growth in productivity in the physical industries. The U.S. economy is becoming more digital all the time.
The four U.S. companies, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are in the process of revolutionizing all aspects of life not only in America but all around the world.
According to the Kauffman Foundation entrepreneurship is flourishing in the U.S. (see chart), and not just in Silicon Valley.
According to Freedom House democracy has made much progress around the world in the last 30 years, even if further growth has stalled for the past ten years. Other democratic countries are our best friends and so we want more of them.
Granted Donald Trump is a wild card. So far his record is mixed but he hasn’t made any big mistakes (liking dragging us into war or hurting the economy). It is unlikely that he’ll slow our huge forward momentum whether or not he helps it.
Conclusion. “The democratic experiment is fragile” (perhaps!) but it’s also got a lot going for it right now. We can never afford to be complacent but we need not be pessimistic either.
My last post noted that with our unemployment rate down to 4.2% and with median household income having increased by 3.2% in 2016, the emphasis now should be totally directed to addressing our number one long term problem:
Massive national debt. With a deficit of $668 billion for Fiscal Year 2017, our debt now stands at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since the end of WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to go much higher without significant changes in current policy.
Obviously our annual deficits are way too large and we need to shrink them dramatically. One way to start doing this is to speed up economic growth which will increase tax revenue especially by creating more jobs and better paying jobs. Faster economic growth is quite feasible and this is one of the main goals of tax reform, now being considered by Congress. But it needs to increase growth without increasing the deficit which is entirely doable.
But there is another big reason for revenue neutral tax reform as well. The dollar has depreciated by 10% in 2017 while the stock market has increased by 13%. The S&P price-earnings ratio has risen to 30 at present which is way above average. All of this means that we are in a loose money financial bubble. For Congress to make our annual deficits worse than they already are, with deficit increasing tax reform, would make this bubble even bigger and therefore be highly irresponsible.
Conclusion. When interest rates return to much higher normal levels, as they inevitably will, interest payments on our debt will grow dramatically and cause a huge budget crunch. If ignored, this situation will eventually lead to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
With the unemployment rate now down to 4.2% and household incomes having recently reached an all-time high, the first order of government business should be:
Fiscal responsibility which means to start reducing the size of the national debt, which is now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest since the end of WWII. The only practical way to do this is to begin to shrink the size of our annual deficits from the very high level of almost $700 billion for the 2017 Fiscal Year which just ended on September 30.
A responsible budget for the 2018 Fiscal Year can have a deficit of at most $500 billion which amounts to 2.5% of our total GDP of $20 trillion. A realistic forecast for economic growth in the coming year is 2.5% of GDP which means that a deficit for the 2018 FY of $500 billion would at least not increase our debt as a percentage of GDP.
Budgets for later years need to actually shrink (not just hold steady) the debt. The goal should be to decrease annual deficits down close to zero which would mean achieving a balanced budget. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the cumulative deficits will climb by $10 trillion over the next ten years under current policy, pushing the debt up to 91% of GDP in 2027.
Tax reform, to be considered next by Congress, is likely to stall if it is not pursued within a sensible fiscal policy just as healthcare reform stalled last summer. Sensible tax reform, both growth enhancing and revenue neutral, is quite doable and will make the debt problem that much easier to solve.
Conclusion. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that our rapidly growing debt puts us in a dire fiscal bind. We must change policy significantly and soon or else we will put our prized liberty and prosperity in grave danger.
Not only is Washington politics already hyper-partisan, but both parties are continuing to move to even greater extremes, see here and here.
Here are two examples of extreme positions now being espoused by major elements of one or the other of the two parties:
Single payer healthcare. The failure of the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act this past summer means that (the goal of) universal healthcare is here to stay. The ACA expands access to healthcare but does nothing to control costs. Single payer, Medicare for All, would control costs but then we end up with socialized medicine. The only way to establish a cost efficient free market healthcare system is to remove, or at least limit, the tax exemption for employer provided care and to set up high deductible catastrophic care supplemented by health savings accounts to pay for routine expenses. This would compel everyone to pay close attention to the cost of their own healthcare.
Tax cuts instead of tax reform. Tax reform, i.e. lowering both corporate and individual tax rates, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, is an excellent way to speed up economic growth and thereby create more and better paying jobs. But it is imperative to do this in a revenue neutral manner, i.e. without increasing our annual deficits. Our debt (the public part on which we pay interest) now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since the end of WWII, and is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting larger without major changes in public policy.
Conclusion. The U.S. badly needs a more cost efficient healthcare system and a simpler and more efficient tax system. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do both of these things. Single payer healthcare and (unpaid for) tax rate cuts are the wrong way to proceed. In each case, no action at all is much better than getting it wrong.