The Major Challenges Facing the United States

 

As I frequently remind my readers I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I usually write about particular economic and fiscal problems facing our country.  But every now and then I like to step back and view our overall situation at one time.  The last time I did this was here.
Let’s take another look:

  • The economy is puttering along at 2% annual growth with a relatively low unemployment rate of 4.3% and a good indication that faster growth, up to 2.5% annually, is right around the corner, see here and here.  The economy, at least, is headed in the right direction.
  • Foreign policy. Long term our biggest problem is China, which has four times as many people as we do and is growing economically three times as fast. China will soon surpass us in both economic and military strength. Our best insurance for this inevitable day is to have lots of democratic friends around the world.
  • Global warming is real and getting worse. Our best strategy for dealing with it is a revenue neutral carbon tax, rather than depending on ad hoc regulations like the Clean Power Plan and ever increasing auto emission standards. If the U.S. demonstrates its seriousness with a carbon tax, it is likely that the U.S. and China (which is highly polluted) could work together to establish world-wide carbon emission standards.
  • National debt, currently 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is predicted by the CBO to keep getting steadily worse (see chart)  without major changes in current policy. Right now our approximately $14.3 trillion public debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. But sooner or later interest rates will return to more normal levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will rise by hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This will inevitably lead to a severe fiscal crisis, far worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.

Conclusion. I am relatively optimistic that we can maintain good relations with China and will have the good sense to better control carbon emissions. But our debt problem is politically very difficult to address because it will require spending curtailments.  How do we successfully address such a huge problem?

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Keeping Global Warming in Perspective

 

The evidence for man-made global warming is now overwhelming. For example:

  • The extent of artic summer sea ice is steadily shrinking.
  • The world’s oceans are getting warmer.
  • Spring in the U.S. is coming sooner each year on average.

The three biggest carbon emitters in the world are China, the U.S. and India in that order. But what is also true, and not sufficiently well appreciated, is that carbon emissions in the U.S. are dropping while they are still increasing in China and India:

  • In the 2015 Paris climate agreement, China pledged that it would start reducing carbon emissions by 2030 but, in the meantime, is still continuing to open coal burning power plants.
  • In the U.S. carbon emissions have been steadily decreasing since 2000 (see chart).
  • In India the economy is growing at 7% per year and 240 million people still lack electric power. This means that carbon emissions from coal burning are likely to double in the years ahead.

Coal use in the U.S. will continue to drop with or without enforcement of the Obama era Clean Power Plan because natural gas is now so plentiful and so much less expensive than coal. The best way for the U.S. to continue showing leadership in combatting global warming is for it to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax.  This would let the market sort out which type of energy is the cleanest and most efficient in meeting our country’s growing energy needs.  In fact a carbon tax might even be beneficial for the coal industry by creating a strong incentive to develop carbon capture and storage technology.
Conclusion. Most Americans now agree that global warming is real and that this presents a huge threat to human civilization.  It is likely that a revenue-neutral carbon tax will be adopted by our country in the near future.

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Things are Looking Good but Can We Afford to be Complacent?

 

Everybody should read Tyler Cowen’s compelling new book, “The Complacent Class.”  As I have discussed in two recent posts, here and here, Mr. Cowen lays out the thesis that America has lost much of its dynamism in recent years because life has become so comfortable for so many people, especially the professional elites.


But now things are looking even better yet:

  • A global economic upturn is under way, especially in manufacturing.
  • The Federal Reserve is continuing to raise interest rates, confident that fundamental data on employment and inflation (see chart) is looking more and more positive.

  • Progress is being made on fixing the American healthcare system even if it’s not as good as it could be.
  • The Republican Congress and Trump Administration are united in their desire for corporate and business tax reform which will give the American economy a big boost when it gets done.

These trends auger well for the American economy in the immediate future. However there is one very dark cloud on the horizon:

  • Our national debt (the public part on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII and is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep steadily getting worse without fundamental changes in public policy. In fact, the debt limit, which had been suspended in November 2015, was reinstated by law on March 16. It will have to be raised in the next few months in order to avoid default by the federal government.
  • I fervently hope that the fiscal conservatives in Congress (such as the Republican Study Group and the Freedom Caucus) will insist on real fiscal restraint going forward as their price for voting to raise the debt limit.

Conclusion. We affluent Americans are so wrapped up in enjoying our good fortune that we lose track of a huge problem on the not so distant horizon. Our prosperity is being heavily financed with borrowed money and we will soon have to pay the piper, unless we are willing to bite the bullet.  Do we have the political will to do this?

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Do Charter Schools Improve K-12 Education?

 

President-elect Donald Trump has nominated a charter school advocate from Michigan, Betsy DeVos, to be his Secretary of Education. This raises the obvious question, do charter schools improve K-12 education? A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) suggests that they do in general, although very unevenly.

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As summarized and elaborated upon by the Economist, here are the results:

  • Charter schools work well for low-income children in cities. In 41 urban areas (see map), students learned 40 more days of math and 28 more days of reading every year on average. Black and Hispanic children performed especially well. Where they have worked well such as in Boston, New York City and Washington D.C., students make gains up to 100 days per year.
  • One lesson learned is that autonomy needs to be coupled with accountability. When charter schools expand with little oversight, as in Arizona, results can be worse than in regular schools.
  • A second lesson is that leadership matters. Business practices such as performance tracking and incentives achieve better test scores. A successful charter organization such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) opens new school only when it spots a leader capable of running it.
  • A third lesson is how to scale up the type of education provided by the best charters. These have five qualities: frequent feedback for teachers, tutoring, longer school days and terms, effective use of data to track student progress, and a relentless focus on academic achievement.

Conclusion. Charter schools are a valuable state and local educational option. Many charters are succeeding very well and the factors which lead to success are increasingly well understood. At the very least the competition created by charter schools leads to better performance by public schools. The answer to the question in the title is yes!

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Trumponomics II. Debt

 

As I discussed in my last post, Donald Trump’s primary mandate from the presidential election is to get the economy growing faster in order to help out his base of blue-collar workers who have suffered wage stagnation for many years and especially since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009.  The tax and regulatory reform needed to accomplish this urgent task will undoubtedly turn out to be the first plank of Trumponomics.

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But there is another equally urgent task which must not be overlooked by the incoming Trump Administration.  Our national debt, the public part on which we pay interest, is now 75% of GDP, the highest level since the end of WWII, and projected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to keep growing rapidly in the years just ahead (see chart above).
As Barron’s has pointed out, “Saving America, Part 1”, in its current issue:

  • Today’s public debt of $14 trillion will grow to $45 trillion in just 20 years’ time on the basis of current entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, without any new spending programs or tax cuts.
  • The annual interest on a $45 trillion debt load would be about $750 billion at today’s super low interest rates. If interest rates rise to more typical levels, the interest payment on this level of debt would be about $1.5 trillion a year. This represents almost half of all federal spending during the current 2016-2017 budget year.

Conclusion. Such a high level of interest payment on our debt is unthinkable. This means that either we make fundamental reforms in government entitlement programs in the next few years or else we will have a severe fiscal crisis on our hands in less than twenty years’ time. We have some stark choices to make and hopefully the incoming Trump Administration will not shy away from what needs to be done.

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Disruption Involves Taking Chances

 

I am a fiscal conservative (I want to balance the budget) and a social moderate. I voted for Hillary Clinton for president because Donald Trump is a sleazy person and has such a volatile temperament.  But I’m also in favor of making big changes and Mr. Trump will certainly do this.

capture79As the Economist points out, “his voters took Mr. Trump seriously but not literally, even as his critics took him literally but not seriously.”  The Economist goes on to point out some of the risks involved in making the kinds of changes Mr. Trump is talking about:

    • If Obamacare is repealed, 20 million Americans will lose their health insurance. Yes, but it’s not going to happen this way. Obamacare will end up being modified and improved, not abolished.
  • His tax cuts would chiefly benefit the rich and would greatly increase our national debt. Yes, but the House of Representatives has a much better plan to do this and it is Congress, not Mr. Trump, which will develop a detailed plan.
  • Even if he does not actually deport illegal immigrants, he will foment the divisive politics of race. The illegal immigration problem needs to be solved and Mr. Trump is likely to get this done, with or without a wall.
  • Mr. Trump has demanded trade concessions from China and NAFTA. If he causes a trade war, the fragile world economy could tip into a recession. Blue collar workers, his strongest base of support, have had stagnant incomes for years and deserve some help. If he can increase our exports, blue collar workers will benefit.
  • He wants to reverse the Paris agreement on climate change which would harm the planet and undermine America as a negotiating partner. Global warming is real but the Paris accord does essentially nothing to slow it down. Increased coal use in China and India will more than negate what the U.S. and Western Europe are doing to cut back on fossil fuels.
  • Mr. Trump has demanded that other countries pay more towards their security or he will walk away. NATO members should be doing more on their own and if he can prod them to do this, then NATO will be stronger as a result.

 

Conclusion. Mr. Trump’s expressed views should be interpreted as initial bargaining positions. They are likely to have the effect of leading to progress on many serious problems which need to be addressed.  The risks involved in the negotiation process are worth taking

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The Obama Economic Record

 

The readers of this blog know that I focus on what I consider to be the two biggest problems affecting our economy: 1) slow growth averaging just 2% per year since the end of the Great Recession and 2) our massive debt now equal to 75% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest) and predicted to keep growing steadily under current policy.
I have also made it clear that I am not pleased with the economic policies of either of the two main candidates for president, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Whichever one of them is elected, our best hope for the future is that she or he will have to work with the Republican House of Representatives which has an excellent plan, “A Better Way,”  for renewal.
capture71But, of course, the next president will take up where Barack Obama has left off.  The current issue of the Economist has an essay, “The Way Ahead,” in which Mr. Obama identifies several challenges:

  • Boosting productivity growth. The above chart from his essay shows how much productivity growth has declined in the last ten years. He claims that the corresponding lack of investment is caused by an anti-tax ideology which rejects new funding for public projects, which in turn can be blamed on a fixation on deficits in spite of our skyrocketing debt problem. The House plan correctly identifies tax and regulatory reform as what are needed for progress.
  • Combatting rising inequality. An expanded Earned Income Tax Credit will definitely help here but mainly what is needed is overall faster economic growth.
  • Insuring that everyone who wants a job can get one. Wage insurance and better retraining programs for laid off workers are good ideas. But again, faster economic growth is what is really needed.
  • Building a resilient economy which is primed for future growth. Mr. Obama says that “America should also do more to prepare for future shocks before they occur.” This is exactly why we urgently need to start shrinking our debt now before the shock of higher interest rates leads to huge increases in interest payments on our rapidly growing debt.

Conclusion. Let’s give Mr. Obama credit for avoiding another depression after the Financial Crisis. But his poor policies are to blame for the very slow rate of recovery ever since.

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