The Big Picture on America’s Fiscal Crisis

 

The political scientist, James Piereson, categorizes U.S. history, after the founding years, into three primary periods:

  • A Democratic-expansionist regime from 1800 to 1860 which dissolved in the midst of the slavery and secession crisis.
  • A Republican-capitalist regime 1860 to 1930, which was ended by the Great Depression.
  • A Democratic-welfare regime from 1932 until the present, although with faltering support after 1980.

Mr. Piereson makes a persuasive argument that America’s current third regime is in the process of collapsing for three major reasons:
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  • Debt. Our public (on which we pay interest) debt today is $13 trillion or 74% of GDP, the highest since right after the end of WWII, and is continuing to climb.
  • Demographics. There are over 46 million Americans aged 65 and older today and this number is growing much faster than the overall population. The same for the number of people on Medicare (48 million) and Social Security (58 million). There will soon be only two workers for each retiree. How are we going to pay for the rapidly increasing costs of old age in the U.S.?
  • Slowing Economic Growth. We know that economic growth has averaged only 2.1% a year since the end of the Great Recession in 2009. The economist Robert Gordon makes a strong argument, here and here, that the rate of economic growth is declining for fundamental reasons which will be very hard to counteract.

There are lots of proposals to reform entitlement programs or to rewrite the tax code to stimulate more economic growth. As Mr. Piereson says, such proposals make sense on paper but they are unlikely to be adopted.  “The clearest obstacle to any preemptive solution is the polarization of the two major political parties.”  Democrats have moved leftward and Republicans have moved rightward.  “Polarization is characteristic of regimes as they begin to tear themselves apart in conflicts which defy resolution within the existing structure of politics.”
Any number of events or developments could throw the system into a terminal crisis which would make it difficult for the U.S. to pay off the many commitments it has made.  Such an upheaval would amount to the “fourth revolution” in our nation’s history.  A serious prospect indeed!

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Why Economic Growth is Slowing Down

 

The two main themes on this website, “It Does Not Add Up,” are that the U.S. national debt is too high and that our economy is growing too slowly.  How can we shrink the debt (as a percentage of GDP) and how can we make the economy grow faster?  I make use of all sources of information which shed light on these two fundamental issues.
CaptureToday I briefly discuss the work of the Northwestern University Economist Robert Gordon, summarized in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth.”  His basic thesis, see the above chart, is that human civilization experienced essentially no economic growth up until about 1700, then slow growth occurred mainly in the UK and US up until about 1870 followed by explosive growth mainly in the US up until about 1970.  Since 1970 growth has slowed way down except for a brief spurt from 1994 – 2004.
According to Mr. Gordon, these growth periods were caused by Industrial Revolution #1 (steam, railroads), IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion, modern plumbing, communications, petroleum), and IR #3 (computers, internet, mobile phones), all of which led to productivity growth spurts which have by now largely run their course. Not only are we out of industrial revolutions but there are, in addition, stiff headwinds working against economic growth.  For example:

  • The First Headwind: Rising Inequality. Downward pressure on the wages of the bottom 90%. Increased inequality at the top. Educational outcomes strongly correlated with socio-economic status.
  • The Second Headwind: Education. Stagnation in high school graduation rates and poor performance on international tests measuring achievement. High debt levels for college graduates.
  • The Third Headwind: Demography. The labor participation rate has dropped form 66.0% in 2007 to 62.6% today, only half caused by baby boomer retirements.
  • The Fourth Headwind: Repaying debt. The public debt, on which interest is paid, is now 74% of GDP and is predicted by the CBO to steadily increase. This will inevitably lead to either higher taxes or slower growth in future transfer payments.
  • The Fifth Headwind: Social deterioration at the bottom of the income distribution. Increasing number of children are born out of wedlock for high school graduates and dropouts, much higher for blacks than for whites. For mothers aged 40, the percentage of children living with both biological parents declined from 94% in 1960 to 34% in 2010.
  • Other Headwinds. Globalization and Global warming.

Mr. Gordon makes a voluminous case for the slowing down of economic growth, the basic reasons why this is happening, and the social forces which are making it worse. Next: How should public policy respond to this huge challenge?

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America’s Fourth Revolution

 

The Manhattan Institute’s James Piereson has written a fascinating new book, ”Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order” in which he argues that the New Deal liberal consensus has broken down and will soon be replaced by a new model containing several specific features. The coming new model will be the result of a Fourth Revolution of comparable scope to the first three:

  • A Democratic-expansionist regime from 1800 until 1860 which dissolved in the midst of the slavery and secession crisis.
  • A Republican-capitalist regime from 1860-1930, which was brought down by the Great Depression.
  • A Democratic-welfare regime from 1932 until the present, although with faltering support after 1980.

America’s third regime is in the process of fading out or collapsing for three reasons:

  • Debt. The national debt of $18 trillion today, at about 100% of GDP, is comparable to the debt at the end of WWII. But once the war ended the government cut spending and stopped borrowing and the U.S. economy grew at 4% for the next 20 years. Nothing comparable to this major debt reduction is in sight today.
  • Demography. Today there are about 160 million people in the U.S. workforce of whom 120 million have full time jobs. The workforce will grow by 1 million per year for the next ten years while the number of people turning 65 will grow at nearly twice that rate. The nation will soon reach a point where 150 million working people will be paying payroll taxes to support 80 million people on Social Security and Medicare. Political leaders are doing nothing to address this looming crisis.

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  • Slowing Economic Growth. The chart above shows how the U.S. economy has been slowing since the 1960’s. Since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, GDP has grown at only 2.2% and is likely (CBO) to continue growing indefinitely at this slow rate under current policies. The second chart shows the enormous difference between 2% growth and, for example, even 3% growth over time.

    Capture6Why don’t Congress and the President deal with these problems now, before they reach the point of crisis?   It’s because Congress has become increasingly polarized, with Democrats having moved leftward and Republicans moving rightward. Polarization is characteristic of regimes as they begin to tear themselves apart in conflicts which defy resolution within the existing structure of politics.
    My approach on this blog is that these very severe problems can be solved by politicians working together in a cooperative way. Mr. Piereson makes a very persuasive case that this is not likely to happen and that it will take a huge new crisis, a revolution, to straighten things out.
    I hate to say so but he may be right.