Is Capitalism in Crisis?


The economist and public lecturer, Richard Wolff, gave an address in Omaha NE last night, entitled “Capitalism in Crisis: How Lopsided Wealth Distribution Threatens Our Democracy”.  His thesis is that after 150 years, from 1820 – 1970, of steadily increasing worker productivity and matching wage gains, a structural change has taken place in our economy.  Since 1970 worker productivity has continued to increase at the same historical rate while the median wage level has been flat with no appreciable increase. This wage stagnation has been caused by an imbalance of supply and demand as follows:

  • Technology has eliminated lots of low skill and medium skill jobs in the U.S.
  • Globalization has made it less expensive for low skill jobs to be performed in the developing world at lower cost than in the U.S.
  • At the same time as jobs were being replaced by technology and disappearing overseas, millions of women entered the labor force.
  • A new wave of Hispanic immigration has caused even more competition for low skilled jobs.

In addition, stagnant wages for the low skilled and medium skilled worker have been accompanied by an increase in private debt through the advent of credit cards and subprime mortgage borrowing.  This enormous increase of consumer debt led to the housing bubble, its bursting in 2007-2008, and the resulting Great Recession.
Five years after the end of the recession in June 2009, we still have an enormous mess on our hands: a stagnant economy, high unemployment, massive and increasing debt and a fractious political process.  How in the world are we going to come together to address our perilous situation in a rational and timely manner?
Mr. Wolff believes that capitalism’s faults are too severe to be fixed with regulatory tweaks.  He also agrees that socialism has proven to be unsuccessful where it has been tried.  He proposes a new economic system of “Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises” as an alternative.
I agree with Mr. Wolff that capitalism is in a crisis but I think that it can be repaired from within.  The challenge is to simultaneously give our economy a sufficient boost to put millions of people back to work and to do this while dramatically shrinking our annual deficits in order to get our massive debt on a downward trajectory as a percent of GDP. How to do this is the main focus of my blog, day in and day out!

How Do We Fight Economic Inequality? By Restoring Growth!

The liberal economist Paul Krugman returns to one of his favorite topics in yesterday’s New York Times, “Why Inequality Matters”.  “On average, Americans remain a lot poorer today than they were before the economic crisis.  For the bottom 90 percent of families, this impoverishment reflects both a shrinking economic pie and a declining share of that pie.”  The problem with Mr. Krugman’s analysis is that he offers no solution beyond more fiscal stimulus: “the premature return to fiscal austerity has done more than anything to hobble the recovery.”
CaptureBut there is another route to recovery and it is propounded in today’s Wall Street Journal by George Osborne, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, “How Britain Returned to Growth”. “We cut spending and top tax rates, and now deficits are down and jobs are being created at a healthy clip … at the rate of 60,000 per month, roughly equivalent to 300,000 in the U.S. … The corporate tax rate is being cut to 20% from 28%. … As a result, more international firms are moving their headquarters to Britain and investment is flowing into our country.”
Yes, as Mr. Krugman says, economic inequality in the U.S. is bad and getting worse.  The question is what to do about it.  Shall we try to improve the situation with artificial stimulation, increasing government debt, already very high, for future generations?  Or shall we address this inequality by encouraging businesses to grow and expand and thereby raise wages and hire more people.
The good news is that America is the success story of the 20th century.  The bad news is that everyone else in the world has figured this out and is now copying our own best methods.  Either we can compete, innovate, stay on top and thrive, or else we can get lazy, stagnate and sink down in the pack.
Will it be more inequality or more growth?  The choice is up to us!

The Floundering of America


In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, columnist William Galston talks about “The Floundering of America”.  Based on recent reports from the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Galston says that “Today we are hurtling toward a less dynamic economy, a meaner society and a riskier world.”
His argument is based on these observations:

  • For the past 40 years, 1970-2010, the labor force expanded at an average rate of 1.6% per year.  It will soon slow to only .4% annual growth, because of more retirements and a plateauing of women’s labor-force participation. This means that growth in GDP will slow down to about 2% annually from its historical average of over 3%.
  • America is aging very fast.  Today there are 57 million Social Security beneficiaries which will increase to 76 million in 2023.  Obviously this will rapidly increase entitlement spending on retirees.
  • America already spends 18% of GDP on healthcare costs and the CBO projects that this will grow to 22% by 2038.

“In sum, current trends and policies will yield lower rates of economic growth, painfully slow gains in real incomes, huge increases in outlays for expenses related to an aging population, and a health sector that devours more and more of the national product”, he says.
These trends are all contributing to an explosion of the national debt.  The only current strategy to keep this debt even roughly stable during the next decade, let alone reduce it, is to shrink discretionary spending through sequestration.  This will lead to a decline in discretionary spending to 5.3% of GDP by 2023.  This means roughly 2.6% of GDP for national defense with an equal share or all other domestic purposes.
“This is pure folly”, says Mr. Galston. “The country needs a new national strategy for a viable future.”
How do we achieve a new strategy?  Immigration reform will increase the size of the workforce.  Tax reform could boost the economy by encouraging business expansion, risk taking and entrepreneurship.  True (consumer-driven) healthcare reform could dramatically lower the cost of healthcare.  In other words there are potential policies out there that address our national floundering. We simply need leaders who are capable of going beyond partisanship in order to help create a better future!

A Pessimistic View of America’s Future IV. The Age of Oversupply


Today’s New York Times has an interesting Op Ed column by Daniel Alpert, a partner at the investment bank, Westwood Capital, LLC, “The Rut We Can’t Get Out Of” .  It is based on Mr. Alpert’s new book, “The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy”.
“Hundreds of millions of people who once lived in sleepy or sclerotic statist and socialist economies now compete directly or indirectly with workers in the United States, Europe and Japan, in a world bound by lightning-fast communications and transportation,” says Mr. Alpert.
During the “Great Moderation,” beginning in the early 1980’s, with the tech bubble of the 1990’s and the housing bubble of the 2000’s, we could ignore this threat from the developing world.  But now, after the financial crisis and the Great Recession which followed, this huge new source of global competition for jobs and cheap goods is a drag on our recovery.
Mr. Alpert’s main prescription for recovery is to put the unemployed back to work “by any means, including big public sector investments to improve infrastructure and competitiveness.”  He would do this with massive new deficit spending, arguing that U.S. debt is not a serious problem in the short term.
I agree with his argument that the global oversupply of workers, money and goods is a huge threat to future prosperity.  Where I disagree is when he says that faster economic growth is more important than controlling deficit spending.
In my opinion, “America’s existential threat is fiscal” (Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane).  In other words, as important as it is to boost the economy and create more jobs, and this is very important indeed, it is more urgent to get deficit spending under control and to do this quickly.  We can actually accomplish both of these critical tasks simultaneously, as I discussed in my post of September 20, 2013.

A Pessimistic View of America’s Future III. What, Me Worry?


This week’s cover story in Barron’s, by Gene Epstein, “What, Me Worry?”, attempts to create more attention for our impending fiscal crisis.  “Stop all the dithering, D.C.  The baby-boom budget bomb could destroy the economy within 25 years.  The time to act is now.”  As Mr. Epstein says:

  • Obamacare is part of the problem but so are Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
  • The latest budget report from the Congressional Budget Office, published on September 17, makes an “optimistic” forecast that the federal debt will grow to 100% of GDP by 2038 from an already high 73% today.
  • But its more realistic forecast is a debt of 190% of GDP by 2038, worse than the current debt of Greece, which has a 27% unemployment rate.

“By 2038 there will be 79.1 million U.S. residents 65 and older, up from 44.7 million today.  The working age population, 18 to 64, will grow at a much slower rate, to 214.7 million from 197.8 million today.  As a result the dependency ratio will plummet to 2.7 working age people to support each senior in 2038, from 4.4 today.”
“Since the elderly population won’t begin to reach critical mass until the mid-2020’s, the rising tide of red ink will be relatively modest over the next ten years.”
“The nation thus might be likened to a family with about 10 good working years left which needs to cut spending in order to save for a rapidly approaching old age.  But alas, it’s a dysfunctional family incapable of rational planning.”
Today we have the option of simply containing the growth of entitlement spending.  If we don’t act now, tomorrow we will be forced to make deep cuts in entitlement spending.  Today we have the option of making intelligent cuts in discretionary spending.  Tomorrow we’ll be forced to make drastic cuts across the board which will make the slowdown in the economy due to the budget sequester “look like a Sunday afternoon walk in the park” (Bill Clinton, May 2013).
What does it take to knock common sense into our national leaders?

The Link between Education and Prosperity, Part II: Educare

In my previous post, “The Link between Education and Prosperity”, I looked at data from Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek which show a very close connection between high school academic achievement and rate of economic growth for various countries around the world.  They point out, for example, that only 32% of U.S. high school students are proficient in mathematics, as compared to 49% in Canada, and that closing this achievement gap would boost our rate of GDP growth by almost 1%.  But they also point out that the math proficiency rate for white students in the U.S. is 42% with much lower proficiency rates for both African American and Hispanic students.  In other words, almost 2/3 of the American-Canadian math proficiency gap can be explained by poor performance of American minority students, many of whom grow up in poverty.
In yesterday’s New York Times, James Heckman, a Nobel prize winner in economics, has an article “Lifelines for Poor Children” which points out the importance of investing in effective early childhood development from birth to age 5.  “High-quality early childhood programs are great economic and social equalizers – they supplement the family lives of disadvantaged children by teaching consistent parenting and by giving children the mentoring, encouragement and support available to functioning middle-class families.”
High quality early childhood education is expensive and it is very important for all levels of government, especially at the federal level, to operate more efficiently.  How is it possible to expand early childhood education under such very tight financial constraints?
The key is to build it into our existing Head Start program on which we are currently spending over $8 billion per year.  Many experts acknowledge that academic gains from Head Start are short lived, seldom persisting even into 3rd grade.  But there are existing models for much more effective early childhood education, such as the program run by Educare in Omaha and other cities.
In short there is a cost effective way to provide “lifelines for poor children”, for their own good and also for the benefit of society as a whole, and we should expect our national leaders to move in this direction.

The Link between Education and Prosperity


In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, two education experts, Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek, write about “The Vital Link of Education and Prosperity”.  They point out, for example, that only 32% of U.S. high school students are proficient in mathematics based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.  Comparable scores for other countries are 45% in Germany and 49% in Canada.
The authors demonstrate a close correlation between academic achievement and economic growth of many countries around the world.  The highest academic achievers, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, also have the highest growth rates.
Over the past 50 years, from 1960 – 2009, the U.S. economy has grown 2/3 of a percent faster than would be predicted by our mediocre test scores.  But our relative economic advantages, such as open markets, secure property rights, universal K-12 education and favorable immigration policy, are now declining as other countries adopt these same successful social and economic practices.  In other words, we need to do better if we want to remain on top.
The authors make a good case that America’s GDP growth rate would be boosted by ¾ of a percent per year if we were able to match the educational attainment level of Canadian students (49% math proficiency vs 32%).
In their recent book, “Endangering Prosperity, a Global View of the American School,” the authors break down the overall math proficiency score by racial group:  the white proficiency rate is 41.8%, the African American rate is 11.0% and the Hispanic rate is 15.4%.  In other words, almost 2/3 of the American-Canadian math proficiency gap can be explained by the poor performance of American minority groups.
Conclusion: let’s definitely try to improve American K-12 education overall.  But in working on this difficult problem, we should concentrate on measures which will have the most impact on minority groups where the problem is greatest.  For example, providing early childhood education for all low income families will do more to raise academic achievement overall than adopting the Common Core curriculum (which will mostly benefit already high achieving students).