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.”
We are essentially at full employment with an overall unemployment rate of 4.9% and 2.5% among college graduates.
Real income (after government transfers and federal taxes) is up 49% between 1979 and 2010 for households in the lowest income quintile. Real income is up 40% between 1979 and 2010 for households in the middle three income quintiles.
The 70% decline in the price of oil since early 2015 will eventually have a positive impact on U.S. economic growth. The fall in gasoline prices alone has increased annual household spending power by more than $1000 per household. When consumers start spending this money, it will have a large impact.
The Fed’s quantitative easing program has led to artificially high stock prices which now are coming down as the Fed begins to raise short-term interest rates. The U.S. economy is strong enough to withstand this shock. It would be a mistake for the Fed to abandon its December forecast of four rate increases in 2016.
I would refer to Mr.Feldstein’s analysis as a somewhat rosy scenario. It ignores our low labor participation rate, our high (U-6) underemployment rate of 9.8% and the historically slow 2.2% growth of our economy since the end of the recession almost seven years ago.
Mr. Feldstein goes on to say that “the American economy does face long term problems. High on the list is the large and growing national debt, rising from less than 40% of GDP before the recession to 75% now and heading to more than 80% in ten years. But the big uncertainties which now hang over our economy are political, with presidential candidates threatening to raise taxes, increase fiscal deficits and pursue antibusiness policies.” Conclusion. What Mr. Feldstein is really saying is that our economy is in satisfactory shape right now but that we must attend to its long term threats to make sure that things do not turn sour. What the presidential candidates are saying in this respect is not encouraging.
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”!
U.S. Representative David Camp (R, Michigan), Chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, has just introduced the “Tax Reform Act of 2014” and describes it in a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “How to Fix Our Appalling Tax Code”. This legislation, developed over the past three years by the committee he chairs, has lots of attractive features. Mainly, however, it would give the economy a substantial boost. Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that it would increase GDP by $3.4 trillion over the next ten years and create 1.8 million new jobs. It will accomplish this goal by trimming or eliminating tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthy in order to reduce tax rates for almost everyone. For example, the home mortgage deduction will be cut, for new homeowners, from the current value of $1,000,000 to $500,000. The deduction for state and local taxes will be eliminated. The charitable deduction will only apply for contributions in excess of 2% of income. The middle class is protected by raising the standard deduction to $11,000 per individual or $22,000 per couple. This means that 95% of taxpayers will be able to avoid itemizing.
The two basic tax rates would be 10% up to $75,000 in income, then 25% up to $400,000. Over $400,000 there would be a 10% surcharge on salaried or “non-production” income. The corporate tax rate would be cut from 35% to 25%, again by eliminating special exemptions and loopholes.
All of these features add up to a dramatic simplification of our tax code which will save an estimated $168 billion annually in preparation fees.
But always keep in mind the larger purpose of broad based tax reform like this. In the words of the economist Glenn Hubbard, it is “a policy shift in favor of mass prosperity – dynamism and inclusion.” It will do more for the poor than raising the minimum wage because it will actually create new jobs and better paying jobs.
This legislation represents a fantastic starting point for a national discussion on pro-growth tax reform. Let’s get on with it!
In today’s New York Times, the economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write that “Republicans and Democrats Both Miscalculated”. They say that “when the Congressional Budget Office recently lowered its forecast of future deficits, many voices on the left claimed that the problem had been overblown by ‘austerity scaremongers’” and that “some voices on the right have renewed calls to ‘starve the beast’ now that deficits are under control.” But they point out that just because the deficit is likely to shrink for the next couple of years, CBO also projects that it will soon be back up to a trillion dollars per year indefinitely into the future. And this is all optimistically assuming full employment, robust growth and moderate interest rates.
The Hubbard/Kane solution is to amend the Constitution with a flexible Balanced Budget Amendment. Its features would include: 1) a provision that spending in a given year would not exceed income averaged over the previous seven years, 2) no restriction on tax rates which would have to be hashed out by Congress and 3) an exception to spending restraint for national emergencies.
There are, of course, valid objections to a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. It reduces the flexibility of Congress and the President to act as needed. It would be much better for Congress to act in a fiscally responsible manner on its own initiative. But we all know that this doesn’t happen. The pressure is always to adopt new spending programs and never to cut existing programs, no matter how ineffective they are.
Debt is the “single biggest threat to our national security” declared Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Many other prominent citizens express similar thoughts on a regular basis. It is really just basic common sense that no governmental unit can flagrantly ignore this fundamental economic principle year after year without very serious repercussions. It is (well past) time to force our national leaders to bite the bullet and do what almost every sane person knows what must be done.
A new book by the two economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane “Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America” analyzes the decline of many of the great empires and civilizations in human history. According to the authors, they all declined (or are now declining!) primarily for internal economic reasons rather than from external military threat. The authors conclude that America’s own existential threat is fiscal. Our lowest debt level in recent years was 23.9% of GDP in 1974 ($344 billion) which has climbed to 75% of GDP today ($12 trillion) and is predicted to keep growing worse in the years to come.
Our political system is too polarized to solve our huge debt problem. Republicans want lower taxes; Democrats want higher spending. If Republicans succeed in cutting spending, it upsets the voters and gives the Democrats an advantage. If Democrats succeed in raising taxes, it upsets the voters and gives the Republicans an advantage. So we end up with low taxes, high spending, fiscal imbalance and political stalemate. This is the dilemma we are in.
But the authors propose a solution: a flexible balanced budget constitutional amendment where total outlays for a year do not exceed the median annual revenue collected in the seven prior years. A three-fifths supermajority of each house of Congress can declare a one-year emergency exemption. Additional one-year exemptions may be approved only by escalating votes in each house of Congress. The amendment would take effect in the seventh year following ratification by the states. During the seven year transition period the deficit would be reduced gradually each year until it reached zero.
Messrs Hubbard and Kane provide an excellent, nonpartisan analysis of the deep predicament in which our country now finds itself as well as an attractive means of extricating ourselves from this precarious situation.