What Is Right and Wrong With the U.S. Economy


My last several posts have discussed the poor economic proposals of both major presidential candidates. Today’s New York Times has an excellent article by Neil Irwin, “Here’s What’s Going Right and Wrong in the U.S. Economy.”  According to Mr. Irwin and the NYT:

  • GDP Growth Disappointing. GDP growth was only 1.2% in the second quarter of 2016 and in fact has now averaged only 1.2% for the past year, much lower than the 2.1% average growth since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009.Capture30
  • Consumers Spending Money. Consumer spending was up 4.2% in the second quarter continuing a long term trend. This means that there is plenty of demand for new products in the economy.Capture26
  • Wages Rising More Quickly. Total compensation is not only rising but the wage and salary component, not counting benefits, is up 2.5% over one year ago. This means that consumers have more money to spend.Capture27
  • Investment Shrinking. Investment in new business structures, equipment and intellectual property has now fallen for the third consecutive quarter.  Eventually, if not turned around, this decrease in new investment will lead to fewer jobs and less consumer spending.Capture28
  • Poor Productivity Growth. Labor productivity fell .6% in the first quarter of 2016, a continuing slide. Weak productivity growth is a grave threat to long term prosperity in the U.S.Capture29

Conclusion. Wages are going up and consumers have money to spend. But worker productivity can only increase when business makes new investment.  This is not happening nearly fast enough. The House Republicans have an excellent plan to encourage business investment.
Is either presidential candidate paying attention to this opportunity to speed up economic growth?
I, for one, am waiting to find out!

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Trade Makes America Great


Two leading presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are running against trade expansion because they say it costs American jobs. I pointed out in my last post, that there is a strong correlation between international trade and global GDP growth.
Capture2Today I will focus on the direct benefits to the American economy of expanded international trade.  First of all, I refer to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Frederick Smith, the CEO of FedEx Corp.  Says Mr. Smith:

  • From less than $50 billion in total trade in 1966, the U.S. now imports and exports over $4 trillion annually in goods and services, out of a global trade market which exceeds $15 trillion annually.
  • NAFTA has clearly been an economic success. U.S. trade with Mexico and Canada has risen to $1.2 trillion in 2014 from $737 billion twenty years ago.
  • History shows that trade made easy, affordable and fast always begets more trade, more jobs and more prosperity.

The U.S. typically runs a trade deficit of about $500 billion per year. The New York Times journalist, Neil Irwin, explains what this means. Says Mr. Irwin:

  • The dollar is a global reserve currency, meaning that it is used around the world in transactions which have nothing to do with the U.S.
  • This creates upward pressure on the dollar for reasons unrelated to trade flows between the U.S. and its partners. That, in turn, makes the dollar stronger and American exporters less competitive.
  • In other words, trade deficits with other countries serve as their reserve dollars.
  • Maintaining this global reserve currency creates lots of advantages for the U.S., including lower interest rates and higher stock prices.
  • The centrality of the dollar to global finance gives the U.S. power on the global stage which no other country can match.

There certainly are workers who lose their jobs because of trade competition. We can and should do more to help these workers get back on their feet.  This will increase popular support for free trade and allow its growth to continue unimpeded.

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Growing Employment, Shrinking Productivity: What Does It Mean?


I know that I occasionally repeat myself, but I can’t help it! In my opinion there are two major problems facing our country:

  • Slow economic growth which has averaged only an anemic 2.1% since the end of the Great Recession seven years ago.
  • Exploding national debt, now the highest it has been since the end of WWII. Unless we can quickly shrink our annual deficits down to zero, and therefore stop adding to the debt, interest payments on the debt will eventually rise to horrendous levels.


Two recent newspaper articles address the slow growth problem. Greg Ip, writing in the Wall Street Journal, points out that (worldwide) employment growth is up while productivity growth is down (see chart below).
Capture0Neil Irwin, writing in the New York Times, explains this dichotomy by pointing out that most job growth in the last decade has been in (low productivity) services rather than (high productivity) manufacturing. In other words, the U.S. economy is now producing lots of new temporary and contract jobs which do not add very much to the overall economic growth which produces higher wages and overall prosperity.
The economist John Cochrane has clearly described  why productivity growth, and therefore overall economic growth, has stagnated in recent years.  Here is a short summary:

  • Over-regulation. The Dodd-Frank Act and Affordable Care Act, for example, are hampering growth by strangling the financial and healthcare sectors of the economy.
  • Inefficient Taxation. Growth oriented taxation would have the lowest possible marginal rates paid for by shrinking deductions. Taxing consumption rather than income and savings would be even better.
  • Illegal Immigration. Solving our immigration problem would turn millions of illegals into productive citizens. An adequate Guest Worker program and e-Verify enforcement would solve this problem without the need for amnesty.

Conclusion: There are solutions to the severe economic problems facing our country. Does our political system have the flexibility to adopt these workable policies?

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Economic Expansion Is Not Enough


The Washington Post reporter Robert Samuelson gives our economy today a B-, because the unemployment rate has inched down to 6.1%, fulltime employment is up to 105.8 million in 2013 from 99.5 million in 2010, and full-time women’s pay reached a high of 78% of men’s pay in 2013.  The big negative, of course, is that median household income was $51,939 in 2013, down from $56,436 in 2007, just before the financial crisis.
The Bard College economist Pavlina Tcherneva, as summarized by the reporter Neil Irwin in yesterday’s New York Times, shows what has gone wrong with economic and monetary policy since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (an $850 billion stimulus package) did boost the economy but it primarily aided “the skilled, employable, highly educated, and relatively highly-paid wage and salary workers.”
Capture2On the other hand the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policies have kept interest rates remarkably low and have thereby caused investors to buy stocks rather than bonds in order to get higher returns.  This has artificially boosted stock prices and has been especially advantageous to the top 10% and, even more so, the top 1%.
CaptureWhat is needed, according to Ms. Tcherneva, is a targeted, bottom-up approach to fiscal policy, which provides more and better paying jobs directly to middle- and lower-income wage earners.  Her suggestion is for public works jobs, public service employment, green jobs, etc., all of which would require large infusions of federal money thereby worsening the federal deficit.
A much better approach would be broad based tax reform, lowering tax rates across the board, paid for by closing the loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the rich.  Since the 64% of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions would receive an effective pay boost, this would amount to a tax reform program targeted to exactly the middle- and low-income wage earners who have not yet recovered from the recession.  These folks would most likely spend their extra income, thus further boosting the economy (see my previous post).

Five Sectors to Blame for Economic Weakness


Several of my recent blog posts have addressed various issues relating to our slow growing economy.  In particular I have proposed a simple way to speed up economic growth: namely, broad-based tax reform at both the individual and corporate levels.  The idea is to lower tax rates across the board, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions.  At the individual level this could have the effect of putting as much as $250 billion per year in the hands of the middle and lower income wage earners who will surely spend most of it, thereby giving the economy a big boost.  The U.S. corporate tax rate is not internationally competitive.
In today’s New York Times the economics writer, Neil Irwin, has an article “Why Is the Economy Still Weak?  Blame These Five Sectors.”  The five sectors are, in order of magnitude of effect: housing, state and local governments, durable goods consumption, business equipment investment, and federal government.  See the chart below.
CaptureLet’s look in turn at each of these top five barriers to faster economic growth:

  • Housing. Not at all surprising with 24 million people either unemployed or underemployed. Young people especially cannot afford to buy their first home today.
  • State and Local Governments. These governmental units have to balance their budgets. When people have more money to spend, tax revenues will increase and so will public spending.
  • Durable Goods Consumption. These same 24 million people aren’t buying much new furniture or many new cars either. It makes complete sense.
  • Business Equipment Investment.  Lower corporate tax rates will incentivize our multinational firms to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment.
  • Federal Government. Unfortunately nothing can be done about this category! Federal deficit spending is way too high as it is and must come down.

Conclusion:  Using broad-based tax reform to put a large amount of money in the hands of middle and lower-income wage earners, and also reforming corporate taxes, will boost spending for four of the five main barriers to faster economic growth.  Why don’t we do it?

Does Economic Growth Depend on Healthcare Expansion?


Even though economic growth is much too slow, it has been steadily increasing since the end of the Great Recession at a rate of about 2.2% per year.  But our economy actually shrunk at a 2.9% rate in the first quarter of 2014.  Healthcare spending decreased by 6.9% in the first quarter and therefore contributed to this overall drop in GNP.
CaptureThe New York Times’ economic reporter, Neil Irwin, discusses the connection, ”Our Economic Growth Is a Mystery.  Obamacare is the Reason.” in yesterday’s paper.  Since healthcare makes up one-sixth of the economy, and the implementation of Obamacare is expanding the healthcare sector, it is not surprising that the economy stumbles if Obamacare stumbles.
But he continues “The United States also has the most expensive healthcare system in the world, without producing better health outcomes.  If the nation succeeds in reducing health care costs while also getting coverage for more people, it would be a huge win for the country’s long term competitiveness.  Overtime the dollars that aren’t being spent on overpriced or unneeded health services can go to other stuff which makes life better: houses, college education, restaurant meals and the like.”
Conclusion:  we need to try all the harder to figure out how to grow the economy faster.  The best single thing we can do about this is to implement fundamental tax reform whereby individual tax rates are cut across the board, paid for by closing many of the loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the rich.  The two thirds of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions will automatically receive a tax reduction in this way.  Since they are middle and lower income wage earners, with largely stagnant incomes, they will tend to spend their tax savings, thereby boosting the economy.
The loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy are example of crony capitalism which both liberals and conservatives complain about.  Closing these loopholes and other deductions is a very good way to lessen income inequality.  Our leaders should be able to work together in this direction!

Crony Capitalism and Economic Growth


“If there is one thing that populists on the left and right can agree upon, it is disdain for crony capitalism.  It is a distaste for the cesspool of Washington influence in which big-business lobbyists canoodle with lawmakers to get their way.  It is anger at corporate welfare enriching America’s biggest companies at the expense of the little guy.”  So says the economics journalist Neil Irwin in today’s New York Times, “Why we’re All Crony Capitalists, Like It or Not”.
Specifically he is talking about the current debate in Congress over whether or not the Export-Import Bank of the United States should be continued.  It mostly helps big corporations like Boeing and General Electric finance sales to other countries.  But there’s a trade off.  If it shuts down, then American corporations will be at a disadvantage compared with international competitors who get help from their own governments.
CaptureIn fact, crony capitalism has a much wider scope than this.  Each year deductions and loopholes in the U.S. tax code, referred to euphemistically as tax expenditures, total $1.2 trillion in lost tax revenue.  As the above chart from the Congressional Budget Office shows,  50% of these tax reductions are enjoyed by the highest earning 20% of all U.S. households, with 30% of the benefits going to just the top 5%.
Many experts say that our stagnant economy is caused by a lack of consumer demand, in turn caused by the huge loss of wealth during the Great Recession.  If lower and middle income people had more money, they would surely spend it and our economy would grow faster.  This line of reasoning suggests a way forward!
We should enact fundamental, broad-based tax reform, whereby individual tax rates are lowered across the board, in a revenue neutral way, paid for by greatly shrinking the deductions and loopholes enjoyed by the top 5% of wage earners.  The two-thirds of taxpayers who do not itemize their deductions will receive a correspondingly significant increase in income which they are most likely to spend.
A plan like this would not only boost the economy but also boost public morale by lessening inequality.  A win, win plan!