The House and Senate have now each passed their own similar tax bills and a conference will come up with a single unified plan. Each of the individual bills has been scored to add $1 trillion to the national debt over a ten year period and so the final plan will almost surely have this same feature.
With our public (on which interest is paid) debt now 77% of GDP, the highest since right after WWII, and already growing rapidly, this is an extremely unattractive, and even dangerous, feature of the tax plan.
One of our most cherished principles in the U.S. is “liberty and justice for all.” But consider the normally perceived philosophical differences between the two political parties:
The Republicans are the party of liberty concentrating on providing maximum opportunity for people to succeed in life by realizing their full potential. This means fostering strong economic growth in order to have lots of opportunities for self-betterment. It also means keeping government at all levels as lean and efficient as possible, so as to minimize interference with private initiative. Excessive public debt is a particular anathema by creating a huge public burden, especially on future generations.
The Democrats are the party of justice concentrating on helping to provide the less fortunate members of society with the necessities of life by means of public support programs. This also means working to oppose all forms of prejudicial behavior based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In addition it means trying to alleviate the inevitable income inequalities which arise in a free and dynamic society like ours, primarily with redistribution of tax revenues.
Conclusion. Both parties have fundamentally important principles. They gain and keep adherents by fighting for what they believe in. If the national Republican Party becomes lackadaisical about our huge national debt, as it appears to be right now, it risks losing its reputation for fiscal responsibility. This will do it great damage.
I have pointed out in a recent post that, not only is the U.S. the world’s most competitive large economy, but also that our per-capita GDP is growing faster than for our nearest rivals.
A particularly vivid example of this dynamism is ecommerce where both the adjusted (gains minus losses) size of the workforce and the average wage are increasing rapidly.
We also know that incomes in the U.S. are rising faster at the high end rather than further down (see chart below). What to do about this has become a major political issue.
Here are my ideas (in rough order of importance):
Economic growth is too slow, averaging just 2% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. It is reasonable to expect that the regulatory reform already underway and the tax reform under consideration in Congress can increase growth to 2.5% per year. Together with our low unemployment rate of 4.2%, this is already leading to more and better paying jobs.
Improve educational opportunities by, for example, making early childhood education widely available to low-income families and attracting the best teachers to the poorest performing schools with targeted bonus pay.
Better vocational and retraining programs to prepare the unemployed and underemployed for the millions of skilled jobs now going begging for a lack of qualified applicants.
Attempt to address the social inequality associated with income inequality, see here. Marriage rates, civic involvement and public trust have all declined significantly in recent years for the lower class. A very difficult problem to solve!
Conclusion. In a free society like the U.S., providing self-help opportunities for advancement is the natural and preferred way of lifting up people who need assistance. The U.S. does a okay job in this respect but there is plenty of room for improvement.
Like everyone else, I am trying to understand how such a sleazy and personally obnoxious individual as Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. We know that his core supporters are white working-class voters. We also know that our relatively stagnant 21st century economy has been very difficult on blue-collar workers.
But here is another thread. The author, Richard Reeves, in the new book “Dream Hoarders” makes a strong case that the real inequality gap in the U.S. is not between the top 1% (the wealthy) and the bottom 99% but rather between the top 20% (the upper middle class) and the remaining 80%.
The top 20% consists of households with an income above $112,000 per year (see chart). Such households saw a $4 trillion increase in incomes between 1979 and 2013. A third of this income rise went to the top 1%. But this still left $2.7 trillion for the next 19%. The lower 80% saw an income rise of $3 trillion over this same period.
The top 20% are the highly educated doctors, lawyers, business managers, academics, think tankers, journalists, etc. These are the people who flourish in a global economy, largely shielded from the intense market competition faced in the nonprofessional occupations.
Donald Trump tapped into the anxiety of the lower 80%. He received 58% of the total white vote but 67% of the votes of whites without a college degree.
The upper middle class tend to perpetuate their inherent advantages. They tend to have stable marriages and live in the best neighborhoods with the best public schools. They can afford to send their kids to the best colleges. Most of their kids will remain in the upper middle class.
Conclusion. Such a thriving and self-perpetuating upper middle class can cause severe resentment amongst the bottom 80% who have to work much harder to make ends meet. How should this very difficult problem of entrenched elitism be addressed? Stay tuned!
Frontline’s two part series, “The Divided States of America” makes the case that the divisive and hyper-partisan political atmosphere of the past eight years was caused primarily by the racially tinged reaction of the extremist Tea Party to the progressive policies of a forward looking, if inexperienced, black president.
I think that Frontline has missed the most fundamental reasons for our current malaise, namely that:
Slow economic growth since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009 has caused great angst and resentment amongst middle-income, and especially blue-collar, workers who have stagnant incomes when they observe all around them the elite professional, managerial and financial classes who are doing so well.
Self-righteous attitude of progressives who refuse to accept that conservatives have legitimate, and maybe even superior, points of view on various issues.
National Debt. The public debt (on which we pay interest) is now 76% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII, and is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to keep steadily getting worse without a change in policy. Right now, with ultra-low interest rates, our $14 trillion debt is essentially “free” money. But what is going to happen when interest rates go back up to more normal levels? It could easily be a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the financial crisis of 2008.
Inequality. Inequality has risen somewhat in recent years but slow growth is the real problem. What is especially lacking is new business investment to increase labor productivity. The best way to fix this is with tax reform (lower tax rates paid for by shrinking deductions) and a reduction in government regulation. But this would mean more “trickle down” economics. Horrors!
Improving Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act has increased access to healthcare but has done nothing to control costs. Most developed countries control the cost of healthcare with a “single payer,” government run monopoly. But this is anathema to many Americans who neither want to give up personal choice nor want to forgo the innovation which a free-market consumer-driven healthcare system provides.
Conclusion. The driver of our currently divisive political climate is a deep chasm between the fundamental beliefs of the two different sides. How can this deep division be overcome short of a new crisis which pulls both sides together? A very difficult question.
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.
First and foremost I want to shrink our annual federal budget deficits enough so that our national debt begins to decline as a percentage of GDP. Right now the public debt (on which we pay interest) is at 74% of GDP which is the highest it has been since the end of WWII. This high level of debt is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to a new and much worse financial crisis if it is not put on a downward path.
Closely related to the first goal is the need to get our economy growing faster than the 2% average rate of growth since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. This will have the twin benefits of producing more tax revenue which will make it easier to shrink our annual budget deficits as well as creating more and better paying jobs for everyone.
A third goal is to reduce income inequality. The best way to do this is not with more income redistribution from those with higher incomes to those with lower incomes but rather by achieving faster economic growth which will raise incomes for all. Yet another critical way of making American society more equal is to focus on:
Reducing social inequality. There are many different forms of social inequality in our society but let’s focus on one of the most severe aspects: black-white racism. America will be a more peaceful and prosperous country if we can reduce the glaring inequalities between the two races.
I am sufficiently optimistic to think it is possible to make progress on all of these fronts at the same time. It won’t be easy but momentum is slowly but surely building in this direction.