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.
Several months ago I discussed “How the American Education System Contributes to Inequality.” It so happens that students from high-income families graduate from college in much greater numbers and also with much less debt, compared with students from low-income families. A new study from the New York Federal Reserve has found a connection between a rapid increase in student aid in recent years and the rapid increase in college costs. In particular:
A $1 increase in the subsidized loan cap leads to a tuition increase of 65 cents, and
A $1 increase in the Pell Grant limit leads to a tuition increase of 55 cents.
Furthermore, private schools, both nonprofit and for-profit, are bigger offenders than public schools, even though declining state subsidies for higher education primarily affect public universities.
At the present time undergraduates can borrow a maximum of $57,500 from the federal government.
Under the decade-old Grad Plus program, graduate students can borrow any amount their school charges. In the seven years before Grad Plus, undergraduate tuition was rising faster than grad school costs. In the seven years after, the reverse occurred. Clearly this is an untenable situation. The solution, in my opinion, is to strictly limit the total amount of federal loans for both undergraduate and graduate students and force schools to compete on price. For example:
Limit the total amount borrowable by an undergraduate, from the federal government, to $30,000, the average amount borrowed today, and then let it adjust it each year for inflation.
Limit the total amount borrowable by a graduate student to $60,000, the average amount borrowed today, adjustable each year by inflation.
Students who want to borrow additional funds may do so on the private market, with no subsidies or guarantees provided by the federal government.
Such a program would provide much needed financial discipline to colleges and universities and reduce and stabilize ballooning student loan costs for the federal government.
A recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times, “Minimum Wage Muddle,” is a good summary of the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage for the whole country. Mr. Brooks refers to a recent Congressional Budget Office report that a hike in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour might lift 900,000 out of poverty but would also likely mean a loss of 500,000 jobs. As suggested in a recent post, one of the things we could do to get beyond our political dysfunction at the national level is to:
Put a greater emphasis on state-centered federalism both to encourage experimentation and innovation in the American system and to remove issues from the national agenda which contribute to division, stalemate and endless controversy. Considering that income inequality varies so greatly from one part of the country to another, (see above), it makes a lot of sense to federalize the minimum wage issue. In other words, let cities and states set their own minimum wage levels based on their own local circumstances.
For example, the state of Nebraska, with very little inequality and where I live, has just raised its minimum wage to $8/hour ($9/hour beginning January 2016). Nebraska’s lowest in the country unemployment rate of 2.6% means that hardly anyone will lose their job.
As Mr. Brooks says, “Raising the minimum wage will produce winners among job holders from all backgrounds, but it will disproportionately punish those with the lowest skills, who are least likely to be able to justify higher employment costs.” Conclusion: raising the national minimum wage is not the best way to address the inequality and fairness issue. A better way is to create more jobs by boosting the economy overall. Then help low wage workers take home more money with a (perhaps expanded) Earned Income Tax Credit. Cities and states can establish their own individual minimum wages however they wish.
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!