Quo Vadis America?

 

In many respects things are going quite well in the U.S. at the present time:

  • The economy is chugging along at 2% annual growth, not spectacular but better than in most other developed countries. In fact a rather severe labor shortage is developing in some industries such as construction and agriculture.   More specialized guest worker visas would help relieve these shortages. Better career and vocational education in high school as well as targeted job retraining programs for the underemployed would help prepare workers for the millions of high-skill manufacturing jobs going unfilled.
  • Pesky foreign policy problems are under control. ISIS is being squeezed in the Middle East. China appears willing to help contain the North Korean nuclear threat. Iran is mostly abiding by the 2015 nuclear agreement.
  • Congress is inching its way towards resolution of the healthcare stalemate, by repairing Obamacare rather than repealing it. It’s not clear how much tax reform will be implemented this session but there is at least a consensus on lowering the corporate tax rate to encourage multinational companies to bring their profits back home.
  • Deregulation efforts by the Trump Administration will give the economy at least a small beneficial boost.

    But there is one huge problem which is constantly being swept under the rug or being kicked down the road by both parties in Congress and by Democratic as well as Republican presidential administrations alike. I am referring, of course, to our massive national debt, now sitting at 77% of GDP (and growing) for the public part on which we pay interest.  Right now this debt is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low.  But it’s really a ticking time bomb because sooner or later interest rates will return to more normal levels and then interest payments will skyrocket causing a huge fiscal crisis.

Conclusion. It is imperative for Congress to reform entitlement programs to make them less costly to the federal budget and to otherwise restrain discretionary federal spending across the board. The future of our country depends on our national leaders exercising much greater fiscal restraint.  They need to get much better at doing this!

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Status Quo on the Budget Is Not Good Enough

 

I have now been writing this blog for just over two years.  I usually write three posts per week and this one is #280.  My top sources for background information are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.  My own local newspaper, the Omaha World Herald, carries the Washington Post economics journalist, Robert Samuelson, whom I greatly respect.
A column of his discusses a recent report from the Senate Budget Committee prepared by its outgoing chair, Patty Murray (D-WA), entitled “The updated fiscal outlook and its implications for the budget debate next year.”  To me this report clearly shows why there has been so little progress made in straightening out the budget over the past few years.
CaptureCapture1Here are some highlights of the report:

  • “Both our current fiscal situation and the outlook going forward have significantly improved, meaning we need a budget approach more focused on jobs and growth, not just on cuts.”
  • “Deficits have fallen dramatically over the last five years, and projected debt and deficits have also declined.”
  • “Revenue losses due to the recession and slow recovery were significant enough to counteract nearly half of the improvement in projected deficits, which highlights the need for new revenue from the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations as part of any future deficit reduction effort.”
  • “It is clear that we need a federal budget approach more focused on jobs and growth, not on cuts for the sake of cutting. That leaves Republican leaders with a critical choice.”

In my opinion there are two basic problems with Senator Murray’s analysis:

  • Deficits have indeed fallen dramatically from their very high level in 2009, but not far enough! Deficits are projected to rise back to 3.9% in just ten years, as shown in the first chart. This means that debt will keep growing indefinitely, as shown in the second chart. This is unacceptable!
  • We do badly need to focus on jobs and growth but more deficit spending is not the way to do it. Although immigration reform and expanded trade would help, fundamental tax reform, individual and corporate, is what is really needed to grow the economy.

Hopefully a new Congress will be able to move in this direction next year!

The Truth behind the Latest Job Figures

 

Mortimer Zuckerman, writing a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal, “The Full-Time Scandal of Part-Time America,” points out that the latest employment figure of 288,000 net jobs created in June is highly misleading.  “Full-time jobs last month plunged by 523,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  What has increased are part-time jobs.  They soared by about 800,000 to more than 28 million.” Mr. Zuckerman goes on to say, “Since 2007 the U.S. population has grown by 17.2 million, according to the Census Bureau, but we have 374,000 fewer jobs since a November 2007 peak and are 10 million jobs shy of where we should be.”
CaptureInterestingly, the New York Times discusses the same problem from a different point of view, ”A Push to Give Steadier Shifts To Part-Timers”.   The NYT does recognize that there are now about 7.5 million part-time workers who would prefer full time employment but are unable to find it.  But the emphasis is on giving them more advance notice for changes in work schedules.
The only way that we’ll get what we really need, more jobs, more good jobs and more fulltime jobs, is by faster economic growth beyond the anemic 2.2 average growth rate since the recession ended five years ago.  Here are several ways to accomplish this:

  • The most obvious and immediate thing we should do is to lower the corporate tax rate from its currently highest in the world level of 35%. This will stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. companies moving overseas and encourage multinational corporations to bring their profits home and reinvest them in the U.S.
  • Broad-based individual tax reform, with lower tax rates for all, offset by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. This will put more money in the hands of the two thirds of Americans who do not itemize their tax deductions. Since these are the middle and lower income wage earners with stagnant incomes, they will spend their extra income thereby giving the economy a big boost.
  • The employer mandate in Obamacare is responsible for some of the shift from fulltime to part-time employment, and should be repealed (it has already been suspended for two years by the Obama Administration).

These are just common sense reforms which should be doable by Congress without a huge ideological fight.  We badly need leadership capable enough to do this!

Raising America’s Pay

 

The Economic Policy Institute has just issued a provocative new report, “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge”.  It is based on the now widely accepted view, as summarized in the chart below, that wages for the typical (i.e. median, not average) American worker have been stagnant since the early 1970’s, even though productivity has continued to increase at its historical rate.
CaptureFirst of all, the authors make reasonable arguments that:

  • The slumping of hourly wage growth for the vast majority explains the overall trends in income inequality.
  • Wage stagnation stalls progress in reducing poverty.
  • Wages are the root of economic security for the vast majority. This includes the fact that Social Security benefits depend upon wage earnings before retirement.

Then they ask: “Why has wage growth faltered for the vast majority, and what can be done?”  Here is where the report becomes controversial!

  • The authors do agree that globalization of markets and technological change have contributed to the wage growth slowdown but argue that this overlooks the impact of labor market and tax policy and business practices as follows:
  • Falling top tax rates have increased the income share of the top 1 percent.
  • The Federal Reserve has prioritized low rates of inflation over low rates of unemployment in recent decades and high unemployment suppresses wage growth.
  • The erosion of the inflation adjusted minimum wage and the share of the workforce represented by a union explain much of the entire rise of wage inequality over this time period.

The authors are completely correct that stagnant wages for American workers is a critical, even “central,” problem facing the economy at the present time.  The question, of course, is how to address this problem most effectively.  In my opinion, the authors have completely neglected to take into account how a faster rate of economic growth would contribute to a solution of the problem and how this could be accomplished.  I will address this question in my next post in a couple of days.
They conclude by saying that this report is only the first in a multiyear research and public education initiative of the EPI.  We have a lot to look forward to!

Redistribution, Inequality and Growth

 

Most people agree that income inequality and wealth inequality are increasing in the U.S. Likewise anyone who’s paying attention is aware of our slow rate of GDP growth, averaging 2.2% per year, since the end of the recession five years ago.  Is there a connection between inequality and slow growth?  Maybe!
CaptureFirst of all, it is important to note that income inequality in the past 30 years has been greatly offset by federal taxes and transfer programs as shown in the October 2011 chart (above) from the Congressional Budget Office.
Capture1Secondly, the Economist discusses this situation in the article “Inequality v growth”.  The economists Jonathan Ostry, Andrew Berg and Charalambos Tasangarides have shown (see above chart) that a large amount of redistribution affects growth more negatively than a smaller amount of redistribution.
Economists generally agree that the recovery has been slowed down by a lack of demand by consumers for more goods.  So the recovery should speed up as less affluent consumers feel secure enough to spend more money.  Two things, to start with, can make this happen.  One is a restoration of the housing market so that homeowners have more equity (which can be borrowed and spent).  Another way to accomplish this is with government redistribution programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, for low income people.
But there is an even better way to put money in the hands of people who will spend it, and at no cost to the government.  I am talking about broad based tax reform, whereby tax rates are lowered for everyone, offset by closing tax loopholes and shrinking deductions, which primarily benefit the wealthy.  For the two-thirds of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions, and who tend to be the less affluent, such a tax rate cut will put money in their pockets, most of which they will spend.
Such a tax program as this would be a direct shift of resources from the wealthy to everyone else, thereby lessening inequality.  It would stimulate the economy, creating millions of new and higher paying jobs, and thereby increasing tax revenue and lowering the deficit.  Win, win, win, win!

Response to a Persistent Critic

 

You keep saying that we need lower tax rates to boost the economy but what makes you think this will help? Businesses are sitting on piles of cash. They have plenty of money to invest in expansion. What they need are more customers. The basic problem is not enough demand for more goods. This is what is holding back the economy. It doesn’t much matter what the tax rates are. If the demand and customers are there, businesses will spend their own money or borrow as much money as they need, at low interest rates, to produce all the products they can sell.                                                                                                                Anonymous Critic

I have several responses to this criticism:

  • First of all I want to make it clear that all cuts in tax rates must be offset by shrinking or eliminating tax preferences.   So there will be no loss of tax revenue. Two thirds of all taxpayers take the standard deduction and will therefore automatically benefit from lower tax rates. This will put tens of billions of new dollars into the hands of middle class wage earners who will spend most of this money because they have tight budgets. This will give the economy a big boost.
  • As I discussed in my blog post from October 26, 2013 “Where are the Jobs? II. How to Create More of Them,” most net new job creation comes from businesses less than one year old, the true “startups.” New business owners are typically not wealthy, with lots of personal tax deductions. They need all the financial resources they can muster. Lower tax rates will save them money and therefore help them get their new business going.
    Capture
  • In general, tax deductions such as for mortgage interest, municipal bond interest payments, state and local taxes, etc. benefit the wealthiest tax payers.  Therefore the lowering of tax rates, offset by shrinking tax deductions, represents a shift of funds from the wealthier to the less wealthy. This will at least slow down the increase of inequality which afflicts the modern world.

Conclusion: Lower tax rates will put more money in the hands of people who will spend it, thereby boosting the economy by creating more demand, provide support for entrepreneurs starting new businesses (which will create more jobs) and lessen income inequality. All in all this represents major progress!

Soaring Profits, Too Few Jobs and Low Interest Rates

 

“Low interest rates aren’t working, but we need a debate about what will,” declares The Wall Street Journal’s William Galston yesterday in “Soaring Profits but Too Few Jobs”. “Corporate profits after taxes in the fourth quarter of 2013 rose to an annual level of $1.9 trillion – 11.1% of GDP, a postwar high. Meanwhile, total compensation – wages and benefits – fell to their lowest level of GDP in at least 50 years.”
Capture“Businesses are sitting on tons of cash . . . and they’re choosing to invest their capital in hardware, rather than hiring. The reason: they believe that investing in technology is likely to have a better effect on sales than hiring more people.” Furthermore, “today’s (low) interest- rate regime lowers the cost of capital – and therefore of capital investment relative to labor.”
Meanwhile,” Republicans are banging away at the Affordable Care Act while Democrats are busy scheduling votes on a grab bag of subjects designed to boost turnout from the party’s base in the fall elections. The economic problems we face are getting lost in the partisan din.”
We are in a very tough situation. Raising interest rates might give a marginal boost to hiring more workers over capital investment but it will also greatly increase interest payments on our massive and rapidly increasing national debt. And meanwhile we have a stagnant economy with millions of people either unemployed or underemployed. What should we do?  How about

  • Boosting the economy with lower individual and corporate tax rates, paid for by cutting back on tax preferences. This will especially help small businesses grow and hire more employees. It will also encourage multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment.
  • Addressing rising income and wealth inequality by establishing an annual 1% wealth tax on individual assets in excess of $10 million. This will raise about $200 billion per year and could be used to set up a huge infrastructure improvement program to put millions of people back to work.

Interest rates will eventually return to normal levels of 5% or so and this will create a big squeeze on the federal budget. So we also need to get federal spending under control as soon as possible. But this is a separate issue.
Just boosting the economy and putting people back to work while addressing inequality in a very visible way will get us started on a path to recovery.