If the U.S. is going to be able to solve its serious economic and fiscal problems, there needs to be a realistic understanding of what they are. My last post, “Is the U.S. Economy Really in Good Shape?” discusses a recent Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal by Martin Feldstein. Mr. Feldstein makes the case that it is in pretty good shape right now even though there are big problems on the horizon. Unfortunately, such an assessment is likely to lead to complacency and inaction towards our long term problems.
Let’s look at the overall situation.
Our Economic Strengths:
- The world’s largest economy, twice as large as our nearest competitor, China. The 2.2% GDP growth since the Great Recession ended in June 2009 is not especially robust but it’s among the best in the developed world.
- World leadership. The U.S. dominates international finance, technology, higher education and popular culture. Everybody else wants to emulate us and to have what we have.
- The U.S. Dollar dominates world currency because of its strength and stability. This protects the value of the dollar relative to other currencies.
Our Economic Weaknesses:
- Massive Debt. The public debt (on which we pay interest) now stands at 74% of GDP, the largest since right after the end of WWII. As our currently low interest rates inevitably continue to rise, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket creating a huge burden on future generations.
- Demographic Challenges. Payouts for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are continuing to grow rapidly, thereby putting upward pressure on annual deficits as well as accumulated debt.
- Slow Growth Environment. The economist Robert Gordon makes a persuasive case that the explosive economic growth which the U.S. enjoyed from 1870 – 1970 will be very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to duplicate in the future.
The big picture is that we are going to have to work hard to achieve the degree of economic growth which will be needed to propel American society forward in the future as it has in the past.