The Democrats Are Half Right (and Half Wrong!) on the Economy

 

In my opinion both of the two main presidential candidates have overall poor economic plans.  But at least several major Democratic figures such as Hillary Clinton, the NYT columnist Thomas Friedman, and the economist Larry Summers do understand the importance of economic growth.
In particular, says Mr. Summers, “What is unfortunate is that many (progressives), in their eagerness to focus on fairness, neglect the single most important determinant of almost every aspect of economic performance – the rate of growth of total income, as reflected in the gross domestic product.”
Furthermore,

  • More growth means more employment. For each 1 point increase in adult male employment, the employment of young black men rises by 7%.
  • More growth reduces the need for desperation monetary policies that risk future financial stability.
  • If U.S. growth continues to have a 2% ceiling, it is doubtful if we will achieve any of our major national objectives. If we can boost growth to 3%, interest rates will normalize, middle-class wages will rise faster than inflation, debt burdens will continue to melt away and the power of the American example will be greatly enhanced.
  • The question is not whether business success is desirable. The question is how it can be achieved.

All of the above is very positive on the part of Mr. Summers. But then he adds, “What is needed is more demand for the product of business.  This is the core of the case for policy approaches to raising public investment and increasing workers’ purchasing power.”  In other words Mr. Summers is ignoring that:

  • Our national debt is huge and growing way too fast.
  • Wages are now increasing fairly rapidly which increases demand by itself.

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  • Investment in new business structures, equipment and intellectual property has now fallen for three quarters in a row.

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Conclusion. The way to achieve the faster rate of growth which Mr. Summers (and almost everyone else) wants is not more public investment but rather more private investment. The House Republicans have a plan to accomplish exactly this.

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Janet Yellen vs Larry Summers

 

There is an informative article in the May 12, 2016 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, “How to Pull the World Economy out of Its Rut.”  Recall that Janet Yellen succeeded Ben Bernanke as Chair of the Federal Reserve in January 2014. The other candidate for the post was Larry Summers.
Capture6They have rather different views about the role of a central bank:

  • Janet Yellen insists that economic conditions are returning to normal, even if slowly. She is neutral about the slow growth, secular stagnation hypothesis and using fiscal stimulus to overcome it.
  • Larry Summers argues that world growth is stuck in a rut because there is a chronic shortage of demand for goods and services. Growing inequality puts a bigger share of the world’s income in the hands of rich people who spend less. The new economy is asset-lite (Uber and Airbnb prosper by exploiting existing assets) and so needs less investment. Software doesn’t require the construction of new factories. He thinks that central bankers should spend more time and effort trying to influence fiscal policy. For example, more government spending on infrastructure, global warming and improving education. Also changing the tax code to put more money in the hands of lower- and middle-income families who would spend it.

I think that they are both partly right and partly wrong.

  • Janet Yellen is correct in believing that the Fed should stick to monetary policy. But she is too cautious in raising interest rates back to more normal levels. There will be some (stock market) pain in accomplishing this but it needs to be pushed faster regardless.
  • Larry Summers is correct in calling for action on the fiscal front. But his suggestions for how to do this are mostly off base because they will lead to massive new debt which must be avoided.

So what is the proper course to get out of our economic rut? It is what I’ve been saying over and over again but I’ll repeat it for good measure in my next post!  Stay tuned!

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Will ‘Middle Class Economics’ Lift Us Out of ‘Secular Stagnation’?

 

‘Secular Stagnation’ is the expression, made popular by the economist Larry Summers,  to refer to the present time period, since the end of the Great Recession, with slow economic growth, high unemployment, stagnant middle-class wages and increasing inequality.  It is to be contrasted with ‘The Great Moderation,’ from 1982 – 2007, with a rapidly growing economy, rising wages and stable prices.
CaptureMy last post, “Does ‘Middle Class Economics’ Really Work,” discusses President Obama’s attempt to appeal to middle-class families with policies such as:

  • Tax and regulatory provisions such as tax credits for childcare, college tuition, and second earners in two parent households; also requiring paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage.
  • Expanding access to community colleges to make workers more productive.
  • Increased infrastructure spending to boost employment.

The problem with this strategy is that it is much too weak to combat the huge headwinds opposing it.  In addition to the well-known effects of globalization and technological advance, consider the demographical challenge described below:

OECD old age support ratio:  the number of workers aged 20-64 relative to those aged over 65
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As is very clear from this chart, the demographics are just going to keep getting worse and worse and will be very bad indeed by 2050.
Here is a surprising quote from Mr. Summers: “To achieve growth of even 2 percent over the next decade, active support for demand will be necessary but not sufficient.  Structural reform is essential to increase the productivity of both workers and capital, and to increase growth in the number of people able and willing to work productively.  Infrastructure reform, policies to promote family-friendly work, support for exploitation of energy resources, and business tax reform become ever more important policy imperatives.”
I would add several additional policy changes which would speed up change in this direction:

  • Reform (but not repeal!) the Affordable Care Act by eliminating all mandates. This would incentivize businesses to move part-time employees to full time. Tax credits and subsidies provide enough incentive for individuals to become insured.
  • Regulatory reform to make it easier to start a new business.
  • Raise the age limits for both Social Security and Medicare to encourage people to work longer.
  • Reform disability insurance to make it more difficult to be declared disabled.
  • Tighten up welfare requirements to require all able-bodied adult recipients without dependents to work.
  • Reform immigration with guest-worker visas for needed foreign workers.

We need to get serious about boosting our labor participation rate in order to grow the economy faster.  Happy talk about ‘middle class economics’ will simply not do the trick!

Are Deficit Fears Overblown?

 

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel responds too mildly in “Why It’s Wrong to Dismiss the Deficit” to Larry Summers’ view that we should not worry about the deficit.  Mr. Summers says, “Let me be clear.  I am not saying that fiscal discipline and economic growth are twin priorities.  I am saying that our priority must be on increasing demand.”  According to Mr. Wessel, here is the essence of Mr. Summers’ argument:

  • The deficit isn’t an immediate problem; growth is.
  • We’ve done enough (about the deficit) already.
  • The future is so uncertain that acting now is unwise.

Granted that the deficit for fiscal year 2013 is “only” $680 billion after four years in a row of deficits over a trillion dollars each and that interest rates are at an historically low level at the present time.  The problem is that the public debt is now at the very high level of 73% of GDP and is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to continue climbing indefinitely.  Interest on the debt was $415 billion for fiscal year 2013 which represents 2.5% of GDP of $16.8 trillion.  With GDP growth increasing at about 2% per year since the end of the recession in June 2009, this means that interest on the debt is already slowing down the economy and it’s just going to keep getting worse as interest rates inevitably return to higher historical levels.
Growth is very definitely an immediate problem.  But increased government spending is the wrong way to address it.  The right way to address it is with broad based tax reform (lowering tax rates in return for closing loopholes) to stimulate investment and risk taking by businesses and entrepreneurs.  Significant relaxing of the regulatory burden would also help, especially for the small businesses which are responsible for much of the growth of new jobs.  So would immigration reform to boost the number of legal workers.
As uncertain as the future is, we can be quite sure that entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) will be going up fast in the very near future as more and more baby boomers retire and the ratio of workers to retirees continues to decline.  It would be very risky indeed to assume that economic growth will increase fast enough to pay for increased entitlement spending.
Conclusion:  large deficits are a very urgent and immediate problem which we ignore at our peril!   Furthermore the best ways of boosting the economy don’t require increased government spending.