On Monday the Democratic Congressional leadership held a rally in rural Berryville, Virginia. They laid out a program designed to appeal to the middle class and blue-collar workers who voted for Donald Trump. However many of their proposals involve expensive government programs and therefore would add significantly to the national debt.
What is needed is a greater emphasis on free-market ways of helping middle- and low-income workers such as:
Increasing basic economic growth which has stalled to a relatively slow 2% per year of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. For example:
Revenue neutral tax reform, lowering rates for both individuals and corporations, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, would have many benefits. It would stimulate business investment, create new demand by lowering the taxes paid by the approximately 2/3 of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions, and provide an incentive for multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back to the U.S. for reinvestment.
Targeted deregulation of the financial sector by exempting main street banks from the onerous requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act would enable these smaller banks to lend more money to small businesses.
Fundamental healthcare reform to lower costs from the current 18% of GDP to the approximate 12% average of other developed countries. This would save the American economy $1 trillion annually which could be spent far more productively. The Democrats are on the right track here by refusing to accept Republican half measures.
Improve educational opportunities such as early childhood education for low-income families, expanded career education and job training in high school and community colleges, and more emphasis on income-based repayment for student college debt. There would be some cost involved here.
Modest increase in the national minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 per hour to perhaps $10 per hour and then index it to inflation going forward. The Democratic proposal for a national $15 per hour minimum wage would put too many people out of work.
Conclusion. This collection of proposals involves both Democratic and Republican ideas and should be implementable with a bipartisan effort.
My last two posts, here and here, have dealt with the contention by Richard Reeves 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% are the highly educated doctors, lawyers, business managers, successful entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, etc. who thrive in the global economy, largely shielded from the intense market competition faced in the non-professional occupations. Basically the upper 20%, with incomes of $112,000 and up, have it made.
The question is then, how do we give a boost to the people in the middle- and lower-income brackets so that more of them can enjoy much of the same prosperity as the top 20%?
The answer is to:
Make the economy grow faster than the slow 2% annual GDP growth we have had since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. With sensible tax and regulatory reform, we should be able to achieve a growth rate of 2.5% per year. This will create more jobs and better paying jobs.
Improve educational opportunities by, for example, making early childhood education widely available to low-income families, attracting the best teachers to the poorest schools with targeted bonus pay, and funding college more fairly by requiring that all student debt repayment be income-based.
Fundamentally reform the American healthcare system in order to reduce healthcare costs from the current 18% of GDP to about 12% which is the average for other developed countries. This will save the American economy $1 trillion per year in unnecessary and extravagant costs, which could be put to much better use for higher worker pay, expanded social services and shrinking annual deficit spending.
Conclusion. The U.S. is a very prosperous country but clearly we can do an even better job to improve the quality of life for many more Americans.
One of the topics I discuss on this blog is income inequality (here,here, and here). An interesting article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Upper Middle Class Sees Big Gains, Research Finds,” is highly pertinent to the inequality issue. As can be seen in the above chart, the percentage of people in the middle class or above has greatly expanded between 1979 and 2014. Furthermore, the basic research on this issue,by Stephen Rose at the Urban Institute, shows very clearly (in the chart below) what is happening: the higher is a family income, the faster it is increasing. The best policy response to this phenomenon should be clear. Rather than trying to decrease inequality with higher taxes on the wealthy, we should be trying to boost the less wealthy into higher income classes. The way to accomplish this is to:
Grow the economy faster with broad-based tax reform (lower tax rates paid for by shrinking deductions), immigration (guest worker) reform, (fair) trade expansion, and regulation reform (to help more small businesses get started). This will create more jobs and better paying jobs.
Improve education with early childhood education (to get minorities off to a better start in school), boosting high school graduation rates above the current 80% average (with better career and vocational education) and making college more affordable by putting more resources into community colleges and scholarships for low-income students.
Combat social inequality. The fraction of children with a single parent is the best predictor of upward economic mobility. The lower-income class marriage rate has dropped from 84% in 1960 to 48% in 2010. Policy should therefore focus on removing the marriage penalty in all government programs.
The basic forces of globalization and growing technology use are driving this societal change. The best way to respond is to enable more people to benefit from these basic trends.
For several years now Americans have been having a lively debate about income inequality and the supposedly shrinking middle class. The American Enterprise Institute scholar, Mark Perry, has an enlightening new post on this topic. The AEI has produced a vivid graphic showing that the American Middle Class (defined as the middle 50% of Americans by household income) has dramatically increased in income from 1971 through 2001 but has been stagnant since the Great Recession in 2008-2009. He has other charts showing that both the Low-Income group and the Middle-Income group have been shrinking since 1971 precisely because the High-Income group (defined to be households with $100,000 or more in income in constant 2014 dollars) has been growing so rapidly. Isn’t it obvious what we need to do to restore confidence to the Middle Class? Clearly we need to speed up economic growth. For example we could:
Implement broad-based tax reform. Lower the rates for both individual and corporate taxes, paid for by closing loopholes and limiting deductions. Better yet, shift from taxing income to taxing consumption.
Remove roadblocks to innovation by making it easier to start new businesses.
Improve K-12 education, especially for low-income kids who need extra help. Enhanced early childhood education, more emphasis on career (vocational) education, and charter schools in big cities are the way to get this done.
Make attending college more affordable. There are many good schools around the country which are not expensive to attend (the University of Nebraska at Omaha where I teach is one of them). College students and their families should make it a top priority to avoid huge debt. Attending a prestigious (and expensive) institution is simply not necessary to get a good education.
There are other more controversial ways to speed up economic growth such as increasing international trade and reforming our broken immigration system. But just the measures above will go a long way and shouldn’t be that difficult to implement.
Our economy has been stagnant since the end of the Great Recession five years ago. The median household income has not nearly returned to its pre-recession level. And now a new report has just appeared, “Room to Grow: conservative reforms for a limited government and a thriving middle class”, suggesting new approaches to address this major problem. The lead author, Peter Wehner, declares that “Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals. … Rather than speak about the economy in broad abstractions, conservatives need to explain how to put government on the side of people working to better their conditions.”
How can we raise median household income and put millions of unemployed people back to work, at the same time? Deficit spending is no longer a viable option because our national debt is way too high already. Quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve has been tried, hasn’t helped very much, and is now being unwound.
Consumer spending makes up 70% of GDP and so the most direct way to boost the economy is for people to spend more money. Can this be accomplished effectively and efficiently with government policy? The answer is yes!
Broad based tax reform is the way to do it. Lower tax rates across the board for everyone, paid for by closing the loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. Two thirds of the American people do not itemize deductions on their tax returns. This means that lower tax rates for all of these middle income people will put more money in their pockets, most of which they will spend, thereby massively boosting the economy.
Of course there will be pushback to this course of action from the millions of affluent Americans who benefit from all of the loopholes and deductions in our tax code. But our first priority by far is to help the many more millions of middle income Americans who are suffering from stagnant incomes at best or may still even be unemployed as a result of the recession.
According to Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center, the middle class consists of Americans “who do not consider themselves poor or rich, and can imagine their fortunes turning either way.” “We’ve moved towards an economy that more significantly favors skilled over unskilled labor. In addition, jobs, including even higher skilled jobs, are being outsourced to countries like China and India as the economy grows more globalized.”
“While President Obama has shown that he is able to effectively describe these trends, he has proved singularly unable to improve the economy in light of them. Indeed, a slew of economic indicators have worsened during his presidency.”
“Among the public there is a very deep sense of unease and apprehension. Ground that people once believed was stable is seen as crumbling, and many Americans seem unsure what to make of it. But one thing they do believe: right now politics is out of touch with what they’re experiencing. We’ve witnessed a collapse of trust in the federal government, and when it comes to Republicans and Democrats, the public’s attitude is: a pox on both your parties.”
“Most Americans have lost confidence in President Obama; they are deeply unhappy with both his policies and their consequences. …Yet Americans have not so much turned to the Republicans as they have turned against the Democrats.”
“Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals. … Rather than speak about the economy in broad abstractions, conservatives need to explain how to put government on the side of people working to better their conditions.”
I consider these excerpts from Mr. Wehner’s introductory essay in the document “Room to Grow: conservative reforms for a limited government and a thriving middle class” to be an excellent summary of the mood of the American Middle Class. Some of the accompanying policy prescriptions are good ideas and some are not. Stay tuned!
The publication of two new books is causing a reevaluation of the financial rescue and its aftermath, e.g. “The Case Against the Bernanke-Obama Financial Rescue”. The two books are “Stress Test” by Timothy Geithner, former Treasury Secretary, and “House of Debt” by the economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi. Mr. Mian and Mr. Sufi maintain that the government’s response to the financial crisis should have focused less on saving the banking system and more on the problem of excessive household debt. They discovered in their research that, during the housing bubble, less affluent people were spending as much as 25 – 30 cents for every dollar of increase in housing equity. When the bubble burst, and housing prices started to fall, these borrowers cut way back on spending which caused many businesses to lay off employees. The authors propose setting up a government program to help borrowers decrease what they owe in underwater mortgages.
Five years after the end of the Great Recession it would still be very helpful to speed up our lagging economy. Here are three different possible ways to do this:
The Keynesians say the best way to stimulate the economy is with more government (deficit) spending. For example, spending several hundred billion dollars a year on infra-structure would create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new construction jobs. I think this is a good idea, but only if it’s paid for with a new tax (e.g. a carbon tax or a wealth tax).
The Mian/Sufi plan, as described above, would alleviate mortgage debt problems for millions of middle class homeowners who are still under water, encouraging them to spend more money which would in turn boost the economy. The problem is that the M/S plan creates a moral hazard for mortgage holders unless it’s paid for by mortgage insurance which would raise costs for borrowers.
Broad-based tax reform, with lower tax rates for everyone, paid for by closing loopholes and limiting tax deductions for the wealthy, would automatically put more income in the hands of the two-thirds of tax payers who do not itemize deductions. These middle class wage earners would tend to spend this extra money thereby boosting the economy.
The point is that there very definitely are ways to boost the economy, some better than others, and it should be a top priority of Congress and the President to get this done.
Most Americans agree that achieving better educational outcomes is one of the key ingredients to providing better opportunities for moving up the economic ladder. As one way to accomplish this, more and more attention is being given to early childhood education. The preeminent early childhood program in the U.S. is Head Start, which was begun in the 1960s as part of LBJ’s war on poverty. But a 2012 federal evaluation of Head Start showed that children who have participated in Head Start have been no more successful in elementary school than those who haven’t.
In today’s New York Times, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp addresses this problem, “The Benefits of Mixing Rich and Poor”. Mr. Kirp reminds us that only low-income children are eligible to participate in Head Start. He then goes on to describe several pre-K programs around the country which serve kids from both low-income and middle class families together. These programs achieve much better success for low-income kids without sacrificing the interests of the well-off kids. A similar phenomenon has been observed in the Learning Community of Omaha Nebraska. The LC is a six year old experiment created by the State to close the achievement gap between children from low income and middle class families. The Open Enrollment facet of the LC enables low income kids to receive free transportation to transfer to other schools within the 11 individual school districts which comprise the LC. The above chart shows that resident FRL (free and reduced price lunch) students in low poverty schools perform substantially better than resident FRL students in high poverty schools. In other words, low-income students benefit academically from associating with middle class students.
The question is how to design efficient public policy around this widely noted and common sense observation. It would be too expensive, in today’s tight budget climate, to provide universal pre-K education for all three and four year olds in the U.S. But the Rosemount Center, in Washington D.C., one of the pre-K programs described by Mr. Kirp., admits children from middle class families on a paying basis.
This could become an affordable and effective national model for providing pre-K education for rich and poor together!
Yesterday’s New York Times has a very interesting article, “U.S. Middle Class No Longer World’s Richest”, demonstrating that from 1980 -2010 the median wage in many other developed nations has grown faster than in the U.S. The chart below does show that the U.S. median wage is still growing but just not as fast as elsewhere. The authors suggest three reasons to explain what is happening:
Educational attainment in the U.S. is growing more slowly than in the rest of the industrialized world.
A larger portion of business profits in the U.S. is going to top executives meaning less for middle and low income workers.
There is a higher degree of income redistribution (through taxation) in Canada and Western Europe than in the U.S.
The data presented in this article is more elaborate but nevertheless consistent with what other studies are showing. We are still on top but we need to make some major changes in order to stay there. For example:
Most states have adopted the national Common Core curriculum for K – 12 schools. In today’s highly competitive global environment, this will enable a more rigorous evaluation of educational attainment between the states and should, therefore, improve overall academic achievement.
The best way to raise salaries for middle and low-income workers is to boost economic output overall. Fundamental tax reform, with lower tax rates for everyone, offset by closing loopholes and lowering deductions for the wealthy, will put more money in the hands of the people most likely to spend it. This will increase demand and make the economy grow faster.
As a highly visible way of addressing economic inequality in the U.S., institute a relatively small, i.e. 1% or 2%, wealth tax on the assets of individuals with a net worth exceeding $10 million. This would raise up to $200 billion per year which could be used for an extensive infrastructure renewal program, creating lots of jobs and further boosting the economy, with a lot left over to devote to shrinking our massive federal deficits.
A program like this encourages everyone to work hard and reach their highest potential, including accumulating as much wealth as they are able to. But the people at the very top, i.e. the superrich, will be required to give back a little bit more in order to benefit the entire country.
My last post on January 23 shows vividly what the challenges are in restoring the American middle class to the prosperity which existed up until the Great Recession hit in late 2007. The problem, of course, is the gale strength force of globalization which is lifting up low wage workers all over the developing world and creating huge competition for the many low-skilled workers in the United States.
In today’s New York Times, the former Obama Administration car czar, Steven Rattner, writes about “The Myth of Industrial Rebound” in the United States, explaining why manufacturing jobs are coming back much more slowly than other jobs. “Manufacturing would benefit from the same reforms that would help the broader economy: restructuring of our loophole-ridden corporate tax code, new policies to bring in skilled immigrants, added spending on infrastructure and, yes, more trade agreements to encourage foreign direct investment.” The above chart shows the huge decline in manufacturing jobs relative to other parts of the economy such as the education and health sector as well as the professional and business sector. Of course, these more rapidly growing service sectors are the ones benefitting from the information technology revolution. In manufacturing, on the other hand, the low skill jobs are going overseas while the high skill jobs, using technology such as robots, are much fewer in number.
Conclusion: in order to increase manufacturing jobs in the U.S., we better government policies, as outlined above by Mr. Rattner. But we also need to recognize that there aren’t going to be as many high skilled manufacturing jobs in the future. We are going to need much better K-12 and post-secondary educational outcomes to prepare the middle class for the high skilled service jobs which will predominate in the future.