The House and Senate have now each passed their own similar tax bills and a conference will come up with a single unified plan. Each of the individual bills has been scored to add $1 trillion to the national debt over a ten year period and so the final plan will almost surely have this same feature.
With our public (on which interest is paid) debt now 77% of GDP, the highest since right after WWII, and already growing rapidly, this is an extremely unattractive, and even dangerous, feature of the tax plan.
One of our most cherished principles in the U.S. is “liberty and justice for all.” But consider the normally perceived philosophical differences between the two political parties:
The Republicans are the party of liberty concentrating on providing maximum opportunity for people to succeed in life by realizing their full potential. This means fostering strong economic growth in order to have lots of opportunities for self-betterment. It also means keeping government at all levels as lean and efficient as possible, so as to minimize interference with private initiative. Excessive public debt is a particular anathema by creating a huge public burden, especially on future generations.
The Democrats are the party of justice concentrating on helping to provide the less fortunate members of society with the necessities of life by means of public support programs. This also means working to oppose all forms of prejudicial behavior based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In addition it means trying to alleviate the inevitable income inequalities which arise in a free and dynamic society like ours, primarily with redistribution of tax revenues.
Conclusion. Both parties have fundamentally important principles. They gain and keep adherents by fighting for what they believe in. If the national Republican Party becomes lackadaisical about our huge national debt, as it appears to be right now, it risks losing its reputation for fiscal responsibility. This will do it great damage.
My recent posts about the American Idea have argued that our country has a great future before it. We have a strong and prosperous economy and are the world’s leading innovator. Furthermore there are clear cut and effective ways to address the income inequality and poverty which hold back many Americans from fully sharing the benefits of our remarkably successful society.
But there is one huge problem our political system is ignoring which will lead to a major crisis if left unattended much longer.
I am referring, of course, to our gargantuan:
National Debt, now sitting at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the largest it has been since the end of WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep steadily getting worse without major changes in current policy. Right now all of this debt is essentially “free money” because interest rates are so low.
Economic growthis created by tax cuts but only 10-20% of the lost revenue from tax cuts is offset by new growth.
Democrats, on the other hand, don’t take the debt seriously, except when arguing against Republican tax cuts. Debt deniers claim that the risk of government overspending is inflation, not bankruptcy. What they don’t understand is that
Interest rates will return to more normal (and much higher) historical levels eventually and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket by hundreds of billions of dollars every year. This will crowd out all sorts of spending on popular domestic programs. It is likely to lead to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
Conclusion. For all of our nation’s great strengths, we are in a very serious fiscal pickle, with no clear cut path of orderly resolution. Realistically our debt problem cannot be wound down without committed Presidential leadership and this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
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.
In today’s fractious political climate, it is at least widely recognized that skilled blue-collar workers are often suffering from stagnant income growth and/or job loss. Unfortunately, the political parties often disagree on how to address this major problem. There are several different perspectives from which to view the overall situation:
Slow economic growth, averaging only 2% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. From 1950 – 2000 the economy grew at over 3% per year and produced a prosperous American middle class. Now, with strong headwinds from globalization and constantly improving technology, we badly need faster overall economic growth to provide more and better paying middle class jobs.
Income inequality. There is increasing income inequality in the U.S. even though the top 25% or so are doing very well. But raising taxes on the wealthy could slow down economic growth by discouraging new investment. In addition, redistribution of tax revenue to lower income Americans will not give them much of a boost.
Income insecurity. This is a huge problem for the many blue-collar workers who are struggling to make ends meet. There are a number of specific government actions which could alleviate this enormous societal problem.
Economic justice. Poverty in the U.S. is widely distributed geographically, with almost as much in rural and small town areas as in big cities. This could provide an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together to address a very challenging problem.
Conclusion. Our country has very serious economic and fiscal problems which are not being addressed because of severe partisan infighting in Congress. But slow economic growth, income insecurity and poverty affect a wide variety of people with different political outlooks. It’s inexcusable to allow partisan bickering to get in the way of finding workable solutions.
Over and over for the past several years I have been saying on this blog that our country’s two biggest problems are:
Slow Economic Growth, averaging just 2% since the end of the Great Recession in June 2012. Such slow growth has led to wage stagnation and job loss for many millions of blue-collar workers.
Massive debt accumulation, now amounting to 77% of GDP (for our public debt on which we pay interest), the worst it has been since right after the end of WWII. And the Congressional Budget Office predicts that it will continue to get steadily worse without changes in current policy.
Unfortunately, political gridlock in Washington ever since the beginning of the 112th Congress in January 2011 (when the Tea Party took control of the House) has prevented making progress on either of these two problems. That could perhaps change in the near future with the election of President Trump, at least with respect to faster growth.
But Mr. Trump’s election does not change a fundamental reality. Many progressives think that 2% growth is the “new normal” or, what’s worse, that any economic growth at all will simply require more fossil fuel use and therefore lead to even faster global warming. Furthermore, while many progressives have little interest in economic growth, they do care very much about economic justice. They think that the top 1% take home too much income and that, in addition, there is far too much poverty in America.
In today’s Omaha World Herald there is an article about the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee chaired by Rep. Adrian Smith (R, NE). This subcommittee has jurisdiction over temporary assistance for needy families, food stamps, low-income energy assistance, and unemployment benefits. It turns out that there is rural and small town poverty almost as much as in urban and suburban areas (see chart).
Conclusion. Poverty exists all over our country and so should be of concern to both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Perhaps if the two sides can work together on this major issue, they can work together on other important issues as well. More later!
Like many other fiscal conservatives I have been overlooking Donald Trump’s moral failings in hopes of electing a president who would be able to disrupt our current economic stagnation and move the U.S. towards faster growth which is the only way to achieve broad-based prosperity. But at some point we all have to say that enough is enough and the appearance last week of the video with lewd remarks about women is the tipping point for me. Even though I can no longer support or vote for Mr. Trump, I would like to summarize where I agree (and disagree!) with him on various issues. In decreasing order of importance:
Massive Debt. Mr. Trump at least talks about our almost $20 trillion national debt (and large annual deficits) even though he has made no proposals to deal with this problem. Mrs. Clinton has shown even less interest in this issue.
Tax Reform. Mr. Trump wants to lower tax rates for both individuals and corporations in order to stimulate economic growth. This is a very good idea as long as the tax rate cuts are made revenue neutral by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions. The Republican House has an excellent plan, “A Better Way” to accomplish just this. Hillary Clinton talks far more about economic inequality than about growth.
Regulatory Reform. Mr. Trump specifically mentions both the ACA and Dodd/Frank as being harmful to economic growth whereas Mrs. Clinton defends them.
Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Mr. Trump opposes both TPP and NAFTA. Fair trade deals create more jobs than they destroy. Furthermore they produce lower priced products for everyone which boosts the economy. Wage insurance and better retraining programs will help those who lose their jobs due to foreign competition.
Immigration Reform. We need to solve our illegal immigration problem and Mr. Trump would probably be able to accomplish this, one way or another.
Conclusion. At this point it is pretty clear that Mrs. Clinton will be our next president. If the Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives, and she is willing to work with them, there is at least a chance to make progress on the growth issue.
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was not part of the normal boom and bust cycle, but rather the collapse of the postwar economic expansion under the weight of four main factors: high debt levels, large global imbalances, excessive financialization and an unsound build-up of future entitlements.
The economy risks becoming trapped in a QE-forever cycle. A weak economy leads to expansionary fiscal measures and Quantitative Easing (QE). If the economy responds then interest rates will go up and lead to a debt crisis. If the economy does not respond, then there is pressure for additional stimuli.
The economist Robert Gordon predicts that the future U.S. growth rate, adjusted for six big headwinds (demographics, declining educational attainment, rising inequality, effects of globalization, environmental costs, and debt overhang) may only be .2%, well below the 2.1% growth rate of the past few years.
The GFC may signal the zenith of globalization. The U.S. could function successfully as a closed economy, with foreign trade making up only 15% of GDP. The European Union and China could also turn inward. The rise of autarky and nationalism is a dangerous cocktail.
Financialization drives inequality. QE and low interest rates encourages high-income households to increase investments and therefore boosts the stock market. The increasing cost of healthcare, higher education and childcare is a big burden on low-income households.
Financial repression is increasingly accompanied by political repression which engenders lack of trust which in turn drives political disengagement and social disorder.
Ouch, ouch, ouch! This is a very negative assessment of the U.S. economic and social scene today. But I report the views of Mr. Das because they are reality based and need to be dealt with.
As I have recently pointed out, Hillary Clinton is now likely to be our next president. In my last post I provided vivid evidence that middle class income grew dramatically between 1971 and 2001 and has been either stagnant or declining since then. The fact is that the years from 1971 – 2001 were a time of rapid economic growth, about 3.5% per year. So it is obvious what needs to be done to fix America’s economic woes: grow the economy faster! In its latest issue, the Economist asks, “Can she fix it?” The tentative answer suggested by the Economist is no, based on Mrs. Clinton’s tepid policy proposals to date:
She wants to make college more affordable, grant paid leave to parents, raise the national minimum wage to $12 per hour, and increase infrastructure spending. These are nice sounding proposals but will have only minor effects on growth or add greatly to the national debt (infrastructure spending).
She proposes a tax-credit for companies to encourage profit-sharing schemes. This would just make the tax code more complicated.
She wants an extra tax on the debt of big banks but simply increasing capital requirements on big banks would be more effective.
She wants to raise the top tax individual tax rate to 45% but shrinking deductions and closing loopholes would be a more efficient way to make the tax code more progressive.
She wants to abandon the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership rather than figuring out how to help those workers who lose from expanded trade with such measures as wage insurance or better job retraining.
As the Economist concludes, “A bigger plan to help American workers would start by boosting competition, both by slashing unnecessary regulations for small businesses, and by ensuring that big firms no longer operate in protected markets.”
If we are going to end up with another Clinton presidency, we certainly don’t want four more years of Obama-type economic stagnation!
For seven years following the end of the Great Recession in June 2009 our economy has been plodding along at an average growth rate of 2.1% per year, much more slowly than after a typical recession. Instead of talking about how to fix the mess we are in, most of the presidential candidates are proposing measures which will make things even worse. The economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane, writing in the Weekly Standard, take a novel approach. Rather than suggesting ways of speeding up economic growth, which may no longer be of interest to voters in primary elections, they list their “Top Five Ways to Destroy the U.S. Economy” which are to:
Restrict Trade. Free exchange is the cornerstone of a growing economy. Raising tariffs will restrict imports, cause inflation and harm American consumers. Killing the Trans Pacific Partnership, stopping the Keystone Pipeline, and curtailing legal immigration would just be a start.
Make Work Illegal. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour will do lasting harm to underprivileged teenagers who are denied a first job. In the U.S. today over 30% of jobs require a government license compared to only 5% in the 1950s. This creeping need for permission keeps untold millions out of the labor force.
Tax People More Unequally. Why should the tax code be riddled with exemptions, deductions and credits which primarily benefit the wealthy? Why do we insist on taxing corporations at 35% when all other advanced economies are competing to lower their corporate taxes? This simply drives jobs overseas.
Stop Innovation. Why does Washington continue to favor big banks and bail out old established industries? A generation ago 1 in 6 companies were startups: today 1 in 12 are.
Increase the Debt. Debt has more than doubled in the past decade, yet interest payments in 2015 were the same as in 2006, because rates are artificially low. How long can this last? A sure path to a slow growth future is this kind of fiscal profligacy. Just call it investment and hope that most people will ignore the problem.
As Mr. Hubbard and Mr. Kane conclude, “The good news about this policy agenda is that it requires no sacrifices. If Washington just stays on course we will reap the whirlwind.”
There is a stark contrast between the fiscal and economic policies being proposed by the presidential candidates from the two different parties. The Democrats want to tax the rich to reduce income inequality while the Republicans want major tax reform in order to speed up economic growth. I favor the latter approach as long as it does not increase deficit spending. The Keynesian economist Paul Krugman mocks deficit hawks like me as “Very Serious People.” But in my “serious” view we have a choice between two very different paths for our economic future:
Slow Growth. Continue on our present path of slow 2% annual growth. The official unemployment rate has dropped to 5% but slack in the economy caused by the low labor participation rate keeps raises low and millions still unemployed or under-employed. The slow economy also keeps inflation and interest rates low. This permits Congress and the President to shrug off deficit spending and debt accumulation because it’s virtually “free money,” being borrowed at very low interest rates. Our present course not only prolongs income inequality but also allows the debt to keep ramping up indefinitely. The longer this continues, the greater will be the disruption when inflation and interest rates do eventually return to normal historical levels.
Faster Economic Growth. There are many things we can do to speed up economic growth. Tax reform is first and foremost but deregulation (relax Obamacare and Dodd-Frank), trade expansion (pass TPP) and immigration reform (with an adequate guest worker program) would also help. But, contrary to what the Republican presidential candidates say, tax reform must be revenue neutral to be sustainable. That way the economic growth it produces will lower deficit spending rather than increasing it. This is critical because economic growth will create new jobs and raise pay for existing jobs, thereby creating inflationary pressure. Inflation will lead to higher interest rates which in turn will make our debt much more expensive than it is now.
Conclusion. We can make our economy grow faster if we simply put our mind to it. But then inflation and interest rates will go up and interest payments on the debt will become an increasing burden on society. This is why it is so important to put our debt on a downward path as a percentage of GDP. We can make it happen if we want to.