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.
In my opinion the two most serious problems facing the U.S. at the present time are 1) stagnant growth and 2) massive debt. As discussed by William Galston in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the U.S. presidential campaign is now beginning to address the first of these issues. For example:
Bernie Sanders rejects “growth for the sake of growth” and says that “our economic goals have to be redistributing a significant amount back from the top 1%.”
Hillary Clinton says that we have to build a “growth and fairness” economy. “We can’t create enough jobs and new businesses without more growth, and we can’t build strong families and support our consumer economy without more fairness.”
Jeb Bush argues that there is nothing wrong with household incomes that 4% growth wouldn’t solve.
The readers of this blog will have little difficulty figuring out where I stand on this continuum of economic values. My view is illustrated by the chart just below from the World Bank which shows that countries with the fastest growing economies also have the least amount of inequality. Let’s be more specific. Mrs. Clinton would achieve more fairness by:
Raising the minimum wage.
Guaranteeing child care and other family friendly policies.
Encouraging profit sharing.
Encouraging more innovation by increasing public investment in infrastructure, broadband, energy and scientific research.
These are attractive goals but how do we achieve them? The best way to raise wages is to get the economy growing so much faster that it creates a labor shortage. Then businesses will be competing for labor and wages will go up. This is exactly what is happening in Omaha NE where I live and the unemployment rate is down to 2.9% (2.6% in Nebraska as a whole).
Furthermore, in a tight labor market, businesses will automatically try harder to keep good employees by providing extra benefits such as childcare and profit sharing.
Public investment in infrastructure, etc. will be more easily affordable with the higher tax revenue generated by a faster growing economy. Conclusion: faster growth is the best way to create a more fair and equal society!
Income inequality in the U.S. is a major problem, getting worse all the time. There are many reasons why this is happening and many suggestions for how to deal with it. On the other hand, it is well appreciated that a college degree is one of the best tickets for upward mobility into the middle class. A new book by Suzanne Mettler, “Degrees of Inequality,” shows how American higher education is actually increasing the divide between the haves and have-nots. She points out that:
There are too few college graduates in the U.S. In 2010 Americans between ages 25 and 34 had a college graduation rate of 33%. At least 10 OECD nations have higher rates (see below). American world leadership in the future will be jeopardized if we don’t continue to be an educational leader as we have been in the past.
America is graduating inequality. College degree attainment has increased between 1970 and 2011 for all income groups. However this is happening much more quickly for higher income groups. 83% of 18 to 24 year olds now have a high school diploma and 75% of this group start college. But the completion rate by age 24 is only 47%, mostly from the higher income groups (see below).
Not all college degrees are created equal. Students at private, nonprofit institutions graduate at higher rates than students from public institutions who, in turn, graduate at much higher rates than students from for-profit institutions. And graduates of the for-profits have larger loan debt than for graduates from private nonprofit and public institutions.
Students at for-profit educational institutions tend to be from lower-income families. As noted, they have lower graduation rates and end up with higher debt levels. Clearly the three tier system of American higher education has a harmful effect on the young adults who need the most help in moving up the economic ladder.
How should society address this major problem in an era of tight public spending? One answer is to increase regulation of the government-run student loan program. All educational institutions should be held at least partially responsible for the defaulted loans of their former students.
Another approach is to increase financial support for community colleges so that they can provide more programs for the low-income students who are most likely to attend them.
The Brookings Institution social economist, William Galston, has an interesting column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. Needs a New Social Contract”, deploring the fact that worker compensation (i.e. wages + benefits) has not kept up with gains in worker productivity since the 1970s. Here is a chart published by the Economic Policy Institute showing the divergence between productivity and compensation for a “typical” ( i.e. in the middle) worker beginning in the 1970s: The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk has addressed this same question in a recent report “Productivity and Compensation: Growing Together” and shows that the “average” compensation of an American worker does track productivity very closely as shown in the chart below: What is the explanation for this apparent discrepancy? In fact, it is the difference between the average earnings of U.S. workers and the earnings of the median or middle worker. The very high earnings of the top 10% and the even higher earnings of the top 1% raise average worker compensation way above the income level of the median worker. In other words it is the result of the skewed and unequal distribution of incomes which is heavily weighted toward those at the top of the scale. The typical or median worker is falling behind and is not benefitting from the steady rise in the overall productivity of the American economy. This is what income inequality is all about.
The question is what to do about it. Faster economic growth will create more opportunity by creating more jobs and better paying jobs. Raising high school graduation rates as well as creating high quality technical training programs will also help.
Mr. Galston insists that this is not enough. Too many workers will continue to lag farther and farther behind. We could raise the Earned Income Tax Credit for low income workers but this would be very expensive in our currently tight fiscal situation which is likely to continue indefinitely.
Do we need a new social contract? If so, what form will it take? How will we pay for it? These are indeed very difficult questions to answer!
Last week I summarized the latest economic report from the Congressional Budget Office which very clearly describes both the slow rate of growth of our economy since the end of the recession, the enormous buildup of our national debt in the past five years and also the likelihood that it will continue getting worse for the foreseeable future unless big changes are made. About a week ago the two economists Edward Prescott and Lee Ohanian had an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Productivity Growth Has Taken a Dive”, pointing out that the productivity of U.S. workers has grown at an average annual rate of only 1.1% since 2011, much lower than the average annual rate of about 2.5% since 1948 (see the above chart). They also point out that the rate of new business creation is 28% below where it was in the 1980s (see the chart just below). Growth of worker productivity and growth of new business formation are the two main forces which drive economic growth. “Why is the startup rate so low? The answer lies in Washington and the policies implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that were, ironically, intended to grow and stabilize the economy.” Mr. Prescott and Mr. Ohanian continue that it is the “explosion in federal regulation, intervention and subsidies (which) has retarded productivity growth by protecting incumbents at the expense of more efficient producers, including startups.”
It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects for change in the government policies which are retarding economic growth. Unfortunately, many political and social leaders have the point of view that it is income inequality which is “the defining issue of our time.”
The best response to this pervasive attitude is to shift the conversation towards equality of opportunity rather than dwelling on income inequality. By far the best way to increase opportunity for those who desire it and are willing to work for it is to grow the economy faster in order to create more and better jobs. If we are able to do this, we’ll all be much better off.