The two main themes on this website, “It Does Not Add Up,” are that the U.S. national debt is too high and that our economy is growing too slowly. How can we shrink the debt (as a percentage of GDP) and how can we make the economy grow faster? I make use of all sources of information which shed light on these two fundamental issues. Today I briefly discuss the work of the Northwestern University Economist Robert Gordon, summarized in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth.” His basic thesis, see the above chart, is that human civilization experienced essentially no economic growth up until about 1700, then slow growth occurred mainly in the UK and US up until about 1870 followed by explosive growth mainly in the US up until about 1970. Since 1970 growth has slowed way down except for a brief spurt from 1994 – 2004.
According to Mr. Gordon, these growth periods were caused by Industrial Revolution #1 (steam, railroads), IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion, modern plumbing, communications, petroleum), and IR #3 (computers, internet, mobile phones), all of which led to productivity growth spurts which have by now largely run their course. Not only are we out of industrial revolutions but there are, in addition, stiff headwinds working against economic growth. For example:
The First Headwind: Rising Inequality. Downward pressure on the wages of the bottom 90%. Increased inequality at the top. Educational outcomes strongly correlated with socio-economic status.
The Second Headwind:Education. Stagnation in high school graduation rates and poor performance on international tests measuring achievement. High debt levels for college graduates.
The Third Headwind: Demography. The labor participation rate has dropped form 66.0% in 2007 to 62.6% today, only half caused by baby boomer retirements.
The Fourth Headwind: Repaying debt. The public debt, on which interest is paid, is now 74% of GDP and is predicted by the CBO to steadily increase. This will inevitably lead to either higher taxes or slower growth in future transfer payments.
The Fifth Headwind: Social deterioration at the bottom of the income distribution. Increasing number of children are born out of wedlock for high school graduates and dropouts, much higher for blacks than for whites. For mothers aged 40, the percentage of children living with both biological parents declined from 94% in 1960 to 34% in 2010.
Other Headwinds. Globalization and Global warming.
Mr. Gordon makes a voluminous case for the slowing down of economic growth, the basic reasons why this is happening, and the social forces which are making it worse. Next: How should public policy respond to this huge challenge?
A Wall or a Path? We need to solve our illegal immigration problem and the key is to set up a viable guest worker program. The fact is that our economy needs foreign workers for many jobs which require hard physical labor such as in agriculture, meatpacking and construction trades. If businesses are able to bring in immigrants when sufficient domestic labor is not available, then other issues such as border security and verifying legal status can easily be resolved.
The U.S. Place in the World. U.S. leadership makes the world a safer place. This means we need a strong military presence all around the world as well as active alliances, trade and military, with many other countries.
Of Banks, Bailouts and Blame. The cause of the financial crisis was the bursting of the housing bubble, in turn caused by an unrealistic government housing policy as well as lax enforcement of existing regulations. Blaming greedy bankers is a copout. The Dodd-Frank Law is overkill which creates a drag on the economy by hampering smaller financial institutions and community banks. The best way to control large banks is to increase their capital requirements.
Who Should Get Tax Cuts? The main purpose of tax reform should be to boost the economy without increasing deficit spending. The way to do this is with across the board cuts in tax rates, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions. Here are some details. The 64% of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions will get an immediate tax cut and income inequality will be greatly reduced.
Getting the answers to these issues correct will have a large effect on the future wellbeing of our country. The Republican presidential candidates should be commended for grappling with them in a productive manner.
As I often remind readers, this blog is primarily concerned with three basic fiscal and economic problems facing the U.S. They are: 1) our stagnant economy, 2) our massive debt, and 3) income inequality. Today I discuss inequality. The March 16 2015 issue of the New Yorker contains an extensive article on this topic by Jill Lapore, “Richer and Poorer.” However it suffers a common defect of only presenting one side of a complex issue.
There are facts about inequality which more people need to be aware of. For example:
The scope of income inequality is greatly reduced once incomes are adjusted for government transfers and federal taxes as shown in the following chart from the Congressional Budget Office.
There is a strong correlation between inequality and growth as shown by the second chart just below from the World Bank.
Globalization has had a dramatic effect on incomes world-wide as low skill work has shifted from the developed world to the developing world as shown in the chart below from the Wall Street Journal. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world have been lifted out of poverty at the cost of lost jobs to low skill workers in the U.S. and other developed countries. Any effective strategy for decreasing income inequality needs to be reality based. Yes, it exists but its severity is exagerated. The Americans who need help the most are the ones unlikely to either attend or graduate from college. What they need most is vocational training to prepare them for the millions of high skill jobs going begging in the U.S.
The best thing we can do to decrease income inequality in the U.S. is to get our economy growing faster. Since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, it has grown at the historically slow rate of 2.2% of GDP and this slow rate of growth is predicted (by the CBO) to continue indefinitely under current government policies. A return to the historical 3% growth rate would create jobs and better jobs for millions of the unemployed and under-employed as well as providing bigger raises for the middle class as employers have to compete for qualified workers.
How can we make the economy grow faster? I have addressed this critical issue many times and will return to it soon.