Combating the Politics of Distrust


My last post, “The Politics of Distrust” presents the view that the main reason for the divisiveness of today’s politics is “the stubborn torpor of the American economy.” If this is true then the solution is obvious: speed up economic growth!
CaptureA couple of weeks ago the economist Alan Blinder, a Hillary Clinton advisor, had an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, “A Fairness Agenda for Winning Over Angry Voters” with which I largely agree. Here are the highlights of Mr. Blinder’s fairness agenda:

  • A labor market tight enough to leave employers scouring the land for workers, the best tonic for workers the world has ever known. Mr. Blinder does say that looser purse strings by Congress would help create more demand but it is simply too risky to keep running up our already enormous national debt. Eventually interest rates will return to normal and interest payments on the debt will skyrocket.
  • Raising the federal minimum wage would be an enormous help for wage earners at the bottom. Many states and cities are doing this on their own which is a better way to go because of huge regional differences.
  • Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, especially for childless workers. A very good way to incentivize work.
  • More Vocational Training and Apprenticeships. Strengthening community colleges and career education in high schools would go a long way to accomplish this.
  • Provide quality pre-K education for families who can’t afford it. Early childhood education for children from low-income families is another very good idea.
  • The tax code is a national disgrace. The corporate tax may be even more complex, inefficient and unfair than the personal tax. The mantra of tax reformers has always been: broaden the base, lower the rates. Amen!

What Mr. Blinder is calling a fairness agenda turns out to be a growth agenda in disguise. I would add a few more items like deregulation to encourage entrepreneurship and business expansion but basically Mr. Blinder has suggested an attractive program for economic growth which should appeal to a broad collection of political interests.

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Why Is U.S. Productivity Growth Declining?


The economist Alan Blinder has just reported, “The Mystery of Declining Productivity Growth” that U.S. productivity growth has fallen dramatically in the last few years.  “The healthy 2.6% a year from 1995-2010 has since been an anemic 0.4%.  What’s scary is that we don’t know why.”
CaptureThe economists Edward Prescott and Lee Ohanian believe the productivity slowdown is caused by a corresponding slowdown in new startups (as illustrated by the above chart).  They point out, for example, that:

  • The creation rate of new businesses in 2011 was 30% lower than the average rate of the 1980s.
  • New startups are critical for growth since many of today’s heavyweights will decline as new businesses take their place. For example, only half of the Fortune 500 firms in 1995 remained on that list in 2010.
  • Startups in high technology have also declined since 2000 even though there is no slowdown in the development of new technology.

Consistent with the recommendations of James Bessen in a recent post of mine, “Learning by Doing,” Messrs. Prescott and Ohanian recommend policy changes such as:

  • Better training, plus immigration reform, to produce more skilled workers.
  • Streamlining regulations that raise cost, especially for small businesses.
  • Tax reform to reduce marginal tax rates.
  • Reforming Dodd-Frank to make it easier for small businesses to obtain loans from main street banks.

In today’s New York Times, the economist Tyler Cowen wonders whether our economy is in the midst of a “Great Reset.”  “Perhaps the most crucial issue is whether economies will return to normal conditions of steady growth, or whether we are witnessing a fundamental transformation” to a less productive economy.
Here’s another way to put it: shall we attempt to adopt better pro-growth policies or shall we just give in to the status quo and accept that we can’t do any better?  Are we optimists or are we pessimists?

Does the Economy Need More Spending Now?

In today’s Wall Street Journal the economist Alan Blinder writes, “The Economy Needs More Spending Now”, that the tax hikes and spending cuts agreed to in January and before are reducing GDP growth by 1.5% – 2% annually.  Mr. Blinder claims that it would be easy to design a new fiscal stimulus package that adds 2% to GDP per year as long as it lasts.  He also claims that a fundamental change like tax reform might only add a much smaller .2% to GDP per year although this much smaller annual effect would repeat indefinitely and therefore eventually amount to a large cumulative effect.  This is a sensible argument as far as it goes but is incomplete.
In the last five years there has been almost $6 trillion in (deficit) stimulus spending, coupled with a $3 trillion quantitative easing program by the Federal Reserve.  This represents an unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus to the economy by the federal government.  And the result has been a tepid although steady 2% annual growth in GDP, much slower than usually follows a recession.
After all of this enormous stimulus, which is having only a meager effect, what makes more sense:  to try even more stimulus or to try something different?  What else is there to try?  Immigration reform will boost the economy by drawing our 11,000,000 illegal immigrants into the main stream economy.  Note that citizenship (amnesty) is not required to accomplish this, only legal status.  Also, requiring many people receiving welfare (food stamps, disability benefits, etc.) to work would boost the economy by increasing the size of the labor force.
Broad based tax reform, greatly curtailing most, if not all, tax preferences, would be so attractive that it should not be put on a back burner, as Mr. Blinder suggests.  In fact, completely repealing the ACA’s Employer Mandate, now that it’s been postponed for a year, would give a big boost to many medium sized companies for which required health insurance is a big impediment to growth.
The point is that there are many ways to boost the economy besides even more artificial deficit stimulus, whose effect would be at most temporary anyway, as Mr. Blinder suggests.  It really is important to shrink our still very large annual deficits down to zero fairly quickly so that we stop adding to the huge burden which we have already placed on future generations.  In other words, we can likely have stronger economic growth and fiscal restraint at the same time, the best of all possible worlds!

Fiscal Fixes for the Jobless Recovery


The economist Alan Blinder has a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal entitled “Fiscal Fixes for the Jobless Recovery” where he deplores the apparent complacency about our stubbornly high unemployment rate of 7.6% after four years now of recovery from the Great Recession.  His solutions: 1) boost government employment with greater deficit spending, 2) offer businesses a tax credit equal to 10% of the increase of their wage bills over the previous year, and 3) offset the high 35% corporate tax rate by taxing a company’s repatriated profits at a super low rate, based on the increase of its wage payroll.
What Mr. Blinder describes as complacency about the high unemployment rate is rather just huge frustration about the likelihood of a divided Congress being able to reach agreement on any fundamental reforms which would be able to boost economic growth.  His proposals illustrate why the philosophical chasm between the two political parties is so great.  In the first place, boosting government employment by increasing deficit spending is a total nonstarter.  Our enormous and rapidly increasing national debt is a major part of the problem.  We need to decrease government spending, not increase it.
We need to simplify the tax code, not make it more complicated with a new 10% tax credit.  Lowering tax rates overall, offset by eliminating special tax preferences for the well connected, is the type of fundamental reform which will truly boost the economy, by giving everyone the same greater opportunity to create wealth.
Since Republicans think that a 35% corporate tax rate is too high and Democrats think that too many companies are able to shelter their profits abroad, then why can’t we just lower the rate and change the rules to the point where multinational corporations will want to bring their profits home, pay taxes and reinvest in America.  A new tax credit just makes things more complicated!
What is needed to break the log-jam is leadership from our elected representatives, not more ideological name calling.  There are practical solutions to our economic and fiscal problems if we simply had more leaders who are focused on finding solutions rather than scoring points on the opposition!