Responsible tax reform will be highly beneficial for the U.S. economy because:
Economic growth will be speeded up by lowering tax rates on businesses, thereby encouraging more investment.
National debt will shrink because faster growth will produce more tax revenue. But this only works if the revised tax plan is revenue neutral to begin with.
The Trump tax plan, described here and here, has the following features:
three tax brackets, reduced from seven. Simplification like this is a good idea.
double the standard deduction. This puts more money in the pockets of the average tax payer who does not itemize deductions and is therefore a good idea.
repeal of the alternative minimum tax. This only affects wealthy people and should be retained, if necessary, to make sure that overall reform does not increase the deficit.
lower capital gains tax. This will encourage more investment but should not be included unless the overall plan is revenue neutral.
repeal of inheritance tax. This tax feature should be retained until our annual budget deficits are eliminated, i.e. until we achieve balanced budgets on an annual basis.
preserving deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The mortgage interest deduction should be greatly reduced from its current level of $1 million per residence. Wealthy taxpayers don’t need that much help. Raising the standard deduction will already help middle income taxpayers.
cutting the corporate tax rate. This is an excellent idea as long as its revenue loss is made up elsewhere. It will encourage multinational corporations to bring their overseas profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S.
Conclusion. The Trump tax plan has some good features as well as some poor ones. Reducing tax rates is a good idea. But adding to annual deficits is a very bad idea. With some effort it is possible to reduce tax rates in a revenue neutral way.
Our economy is doing a little better recently but not nearly as good as it could be. In my last post, “Men without Work,” I present Nicholas Eberstadt’s data that a significant part of the problem is the very large number (9.5 million) of prime working age (25 – 54) men who are unemployed and not looking for work.
Statistically, such men are likely to be un-workers if 1) they have no more than a high school diploma, 2) are unmarried and without dependent children, 3) are not immigrants and 4) are African American.
Two other relevant factors are 1) the huge increase in employment for prime working age women, from 34% in 1948 to 70% in 2015 and 2) the very high male arrest and incarceration rates for blacks and those without a high school diploma.
Obviously, it is highly detrimental to society to have such a large number of men who are idle during their prime working years.
Here are several ways to address this problem:
Revitalize America’s job-generating capacities. More businesses have closed than opened in each year since the 2008 financial crisis. Furthermore, the growing regulatory burden is not a recipe for encouraging entrepreneurship.
Reverse the perverse disincentives against male work embedded in our social welfare systems. The Earned Income Tax Credits should be extended to single adults without dependents. Eligibility for disability income should be tightened considerably.
Come to terms with the enormous challenge of bringing convicts and felons back into our economy and society. The huge increase in incarceration rates in recent years has coincided with a dramatic drop in rates for both violent crime and property crime.
Conclusion. One good way to speed up economic growth is to put more unemployed prime working age men back to work. There are several very concrete steps which can be taken to do this.
My last post responds to a reader who is pessimistic about the future of our country and in fact of the whole world. He thinks that the environment is deteriorating, that rapid economic growth is unsustainable and that there is too much income inequality between high and low wage earners.
My response to him is to refer to the recent book, “The Rational Optimist: how prosperity evolves” by Matt Ridley. Mr. Ridley persuasively argues that not only has the human race made huge strides in recent times but that this progress is intrinsic to evolved human nature and is likely to continue indefinitely:
Since 1800 the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times.
Between 1955 and 2005, the average human on earth earned nearly three times as much money (adjusted for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, and could expect to live one-third longer, all this while world population doubled.
The rich have got richer but the poor have done even better. For example, the Chinese are ten times as rich, one-third as fecund, and 28 years longer-lived than fifty years ago. (Also see the above chart).
The spread of IQ scores has been shrinking steadily – because the low scores have been catching up with the high ones. This is known as the Flynn effect.
The four most basic human needs – food, clothing, fuel and shelter – have grown markedly cheaper during the past two centuries.
The most notorious robber barons of the late 19th century: Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, got rich by making things cheaper.
Exchange and specialization, not self-sufficiency, is the route to prosperity.
Conclusion. As long as human beings are free to engage in exchange (trade) and specialization (acquisition of skills), prosperity will continue to evolve and human life will become better and better.
My last several posts, here and here, have discussed the economic plans of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In short,
Ms. Clinton wants “equitable” growth meaning huge new public spending on such things as infrastructure, free public college tuition universal pre-K education as well as increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour nationally and mandating paid family leave. More public spending and new mandates will provide only minimal economic growth.
Mr. Trump wants to restrict the labor force with immigration controls and raise the price of imports with new tariffs. He would also cut tax rates across the board (good idea) but in such a way that would increase the national debt by $10 trillion over the next ten years (very bad idea).
They both need to take our actual current economic situation into account as follows:
The U.S. is in its weakest recovery since post WWII. The average growth rate of 2.2% for 2012 – 2015 has now stalled in the past year to just barely 1%.
Consumer spending has been increasing steadily and rose 4.2% in the second quarter of 2016. In other words, consumer demand is at a high level.
The House Republicans have “a better way.” Their tax reform plan, among many other good features, would
Lower the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% and establish a territorial system, to encourage multinational corporations to produce in the U.S. as well as bringing their foreign earnings back home for reinvestment.
Provide a tax-free return on new investment by allowing, for the first time ever, for full and immediate write-offs.
Conclusion. The House Republicans have a sensible plan for getting our country back on a much faster economic growth track. Regardless of who is elected president, the House is likely to stay under Republican control. I am waiting to see if either of the presidential candidates will figure this out and adjust their campaign messages accordingly.
My two main sources of information for this blog are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. In particular I am always eager to read Eduardo Porter’s weekly column, Economic Scene, in the NYT. He frames the issues very well, even though I often disagree with him on the details. Yesterday’s column, “In Brexit and Trump, a Populist Farewell to Laissez-Faire Capitalism,” points out the similarities in the white working class support for both Brexit and for Donald Trump. It then goes on to advocate for what the economist Larry Summers refers to vaguely as “responsible nationalism.”
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Porter and Mr. Summers that we need policies to boost the fortunes of blue collar workers, and here are some good ways to do it:
Tax reform to put more disposable income in the pockets of middle- and lower-income workers, to support job creators, and to provide a big incentive for American multinational companies to bring their earnings back home for reinvestment.
Immigration Reform. The key here is a rigorous Guest Worker Visa program to provide immigrant employees for businesses who are unable to hire enough qualified domestic workers. At the same time, a strict eVerify enforcement system would also be established to catch illegal immigrants and deport them.
Free and Fair Trade. Free trade among nations has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty worldwide, as well as benefitting all Americans with lower prices. What we have failed to do is to adequately help displaced workers retrain for the millions of high skilled jobs available in the U.S. which go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants.
Conclusion. Our country faces severe problems. If we don’t get deficit spending under greater control, we risk a new and more severe financial crisis. If we can’t create more and better paying jobs for the modestly educated, we will be faced with Trump-like demagogic candidates for president every four years. It will be a huge challenge for us to extricate ourselves from this mess in a peaceful manner.
The U.S. economy is in a peculiar and potentially perilous situation:
On the one hand, overall economic growth has averaged only 2.1% since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009.
On the other hand, the unemployment rate has dropped from 8% in early 2012 to 5% today.
But wages and salaries have grown by only 2% in the past year and near that rate for the past four years.
What explains our relatively low, and steadily dropping, unemployment rate when overall economic growth, and wage growth in particular, are so slow? It is low productivity growth as the New York Times’ Neil Irwin, has recently pointed out: here and here.
GDP is up 1.9% in the past year. But the number of hours worked by Americans is also up 1.9% in the past year. This means no increase in labor productivity in the past year.
For the past five years labor productivity has only advanced by .4% annually, far below the 2.3% average annual growth since the 1950s.
Most job growth in the last decade has been in (low productivity) services rather than (high productivity) manufacturing.
We do not have to accept low productivity growth as immutable. As I have recently discussed here, and here, better government policies can boost labor productivity and therefore boost economic growth as well. Here is a brief summary of what needs to be done:
Decrease regulation: the Dodd-Frank Act and Affordable Care Act, for example, are hampering growth by increasing the inefficiency of the financial and healthcare sectors of the economy.
Reform taxation: growth oriented taxation would have the lowest possible rates paid for by shrinking deductions.
Reform immigration: giving legal status to millions of illegal immigrants would turn them into far more productive citizens.
In other words, our severe slow growth predicament can be greatly ameliorated if we would adopt more sensible economic policies. It is a shame that this is so hard to do!
In my last post I presented the argument that voters are often more reasonable than the populist leaders who are trying to appeal to them. They would rather hear something more optimistic than rage against a dangerous world. But there is a difference of opinion on how to reach these voters:
Leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton endorses the Buffett Rule which calls for millionaires to pay a minimum tax of 30% on their income. Says Clinton, “I want to go even further because Warren is right. I want to be the president for the struggling, for the striving and the successful.”
All of the Republican presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, have tax reform plans which will grow the economy but none of which are revenue neutral. In other words, they will all add to annual deficits and therefore make our debt problem much worse than it already is.
The nonpartisan Tax Foundation has issued a new report, “Options for Broadening the U.S. Tax Base,” which proposes capping itemized deductions at $25,000 per individual combined with
i) cutting the corporate tax rate to 27%
ii) cutting the top three ordinary income brackets by 5%, and
iii) implementing a top capital gains tax rate of 20%.
Such a plan would be revenue neutral and would lead to a long term GDP gain of 2.7%, a long term wage gain of 2.2% and a ten year dynamic revenue gain of $759 billion.
The Clinton plan would bring in up to $50 billion per year in new tax revenue but would do little to boost the economy. The Republican presidential tax plans are fiscally irresponsible. The Tax Foundation plan would boost the economy and reduce deficits rather than increase them. Other specific reforms would boost the economy even more.
In other words there are clear cut ways to create more jobs and raise wages. This is a message which should appeal to the angry and disaffected voters who are attracted to Donald Trump.
The U.S. economy has grown at the rate of only 2.2% since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. This is much slower than the average rate of growth of 3% for the past fifty years. The economists Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Warsh, writing in the Wall Street Journal, “How the U.S. Can Return to 4% Growth,” point out that:
After the severe recession of 1973-1975, the economy grew at a 3.6% annual real rate during the 23 quarters that followed.
After the deep recession of 1981-1982, real GDP growth averaged 4.8% in the next 23 quarters.
Recent research has shown that steep recoveries typically follow financial crises.
The economist John Taylor, also writing in the WSJ, “A Recovery Waiting to Be Liberated,” explains that the growth of the economy, i.e. growth of GDP, equals employment growth plus productivity growth. He then points out that:
Population is growing about 1% per year. However the labor-force participation rate has fallen every year of the recovery, from 66% in 2008 to 62.9% in 2014. Even turning this around slightly would increase employment growth above the 1% figure coming from population growth alone.
Although productivity growth has hovered around 1% for the past five years, this is less than half of the 2.5% average over the past 20 years.
Given the strong headwinds of globalization and ever new technology affecting the U.S. economy, we especially need new policies such as:
Fundamental tax reform directed at increasing the incentives for work and driving investment in productive assets.
Regulatory reform that balances economic benefits and costs (e.g. lightening the burdens of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank).
Trade agreements to break down barriers to open global markets.
Education policies to prepare all young people for productive careers.
In other words, rather than accepting our current situation as “the new normal” or as unalterable “secular stagnation,” we need to “give growth a chance”!
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has just reported very good news in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. For the first time since 2000, the number of job openings now exceeds the number of new hires, as shown in the chart just below. This means that wages will start to grow faster as employers have to compete harder for new workers. This is an early indication that our economy will likely soon resume a faster rate of growth than its average of 2.3% since the end of the Great Recession in June of 2009. There will be many benefits. The unemployment rate should continue to keep heading downward from its current level of 5.5%. More unemployed and underemployed workers will be able to find satisfactory jobs. The labor participation rate should start to head back up from its historically low current state.
The Federal Reserve is likely to begin raising short term interest rates sooner rather than later in order to keep inflation in check before it has a chance to heat up. In other words we may be breaking out of the ambiguous state of slow-growth secular stagnation in which we have been trapped for six years.
All of this is very good news as long as Congress realizes that it is now even more urgent than ever to put our massive public debt of $13 trillion on a downward path, compared to the total economy, before interest rates begin to rise substantially and eat us alive with interest payments on this huge debt.
In this regard the Budget Plan approved by Congress just this Spring, which will lead to a balanced budget over ten years, looks very attractive indeed. It will be a mammoth job to achieve such a milestone in fiscal restraint, but doing so will lead to a more secure and prosperous future for all Americans.
As I have mentioned before, I am a volunteer for the nonpartisan Washington D.C. think tank “Fix the Debt.” As such I give presentations to civic organizations in the Omaha area about our debt problem and what we can and should do about it. I have now given four such talks and have another one coming up next week.
What is most difficult for me is to try to convey a sense of urgency about addressing this problem. Most people deplore deficit spending in a general sense but not nearly enough people think that dealing with it should take priority over current presumably pressing spending needs such as, for example, depletion of the highway trust fund, expanding military spending, or improving early childhood education, just to be specific.
So here is how I am going to try to create a greater sense of urgency. Several months ago I had a post entitled, “The Slow Growth Fiscal Trap We’re Now In” in which I said (in brief summary) that our current economic condition of
slow growth means
low inflation which leads to
low interest rates which in turn leads to
massive debt which eventually leads to a new and much more severe
This is the predicament we’re now in. Do we consciously maintain a slow growth economy, with all the unemployment pain and stagnant wages which this entails, or do we speed things up, enabling more people to go back to work, and also deal with the higher inflation and interest rates which this will entail?
Faster growth may well eventually come on its own anyway and then we’ll be forced to fix our fiscal problems at a time when they’ll be much worse than they are now.
Isn’t it clear that it is much better to act now in a responsible manner rather than to wait and have to react hurridly later on when the problem is much worse?