We will soon have a new President and, even though his election was somewhat of a fluke, he will obviously want to help the blue-collar workers who elected him. The best way to do this is to make the economy grow faster.
The Gallup economist, Jonathan Rothwell, has just issued an excellent analysis of some of the major reasons for our current slow economy, “No Recovery: an analysis of long-term U.S. productivity decline.”
Says Mr. Rothwell:
The problem is severe. U.S. GDP growth per capita has declined from 2.6% in 1966 to .5% today. Small differences expand into vast gaps in potential living standards. 1% growth for the next 35 years would expand household income from $56,000 in 2015 to $79,000 in 2050 (inflation adjusted), whereas 1.7% growth would raise household income to $101,000 in 2050.
Changes in living standards are fundamentally linked to changes of how the quantity of goods and services relate to their cost. Deterioration in the quality-to-cost ratio for healthcare, housing and education is dragging down economic growth. These three sectors alone have increased from 25% of GDP in 1980 to 36% of GDP in 2015.
The cost of healthcare is 4.8 times as high today as in 1980, the cost of education is 8.9 times as high today as in 1980 and the cost of housing is 3.5 times as high today as in 1980. These compare to an overall cost increase of all items of 2.5 times today compared to 1980.
These three sectors have all gotten more expensive (without getting more productive), thereby absorbing more of families’ incomes, making it harder to satisfy other wants.
Conclusion. We all want schools that work, adequate housing, and quality healthcare. The problem is how to achieve these ends in a much more affordable manner. Stay tuned!
My last several posts have expressed dissatisfaction with both presidential candidates and the hope that whoever wins in November (very likely Hillary Clinton) will work with the Republican House of Representatives to implement its “A Better Way” plan for national renewal.
In particular, faster economic growth would produce more jobs and better paying jobs and hence is highly desirable. As many people, including myself, have pointed out, it is low productivity growth caused by low business investment, which is largely responsible for slow economic growth.
The economist John Taylor has an excellent analysis of this problem. He points out that the rate of economic growth equals the growth of labor productivity plus the growth of employment.
He then shows that:
Productivity growth slowed from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, then increased until the mid-2000s, and has slowed way down in the past ten years.
The labor force participation rate has dropped dramatically since the Great Recession but only a small part of this drop off was caused by demographic trends (i.e. more retirees).
Such relatively long cycles of productivity growth and decline (longer than normal business cycles) suggests that government policy is having a major effect on economic performance. According to Mr. Taylor, what is needed is:
Tax reform to lower tax rates to improve incentives for work and investment.
Regulatory reform to prevent regulations which fail cost-benefit tests.
Free trade agreements to open markets.
Entitlement reforms to prevent a debt explosion.
Monetary reform to restore predictability in financial markets.
Conclusion. Mr. Taylor makes a very strong case that faster economic growth is not only possible but even achievable in the short run if our national leaders would just make some common sense policy changes.
In a recent post I discussed the issue of slow economic growth in the U.S. and why it is so harmful and dangerous to our nation’s future. In short, it not only deprives many citizens of a more prosperous life and makes it more difficult to shrink our annual budget deficits, but it also endangers our national security as our chief competitor, China, grows faster than we do.
In the long run, an economy can expand only at a rate sustained by the growth of its labor force and the productivity of its workers. I have previously pointed out that there are far too many prime working age men who are unemployed. Today let’s talk about the rate of productivity growth (see the above chart). In particular:
From 1994 – 2003, U.S. output per hour worked rose annually by an average of 2.8%. Since then it has grown at an annual rate of 1.3%, including just 0.4% since 2011.
Business capital spending is down as companies are spending their profits to buy back stock rather than making new investments (see second chart).
As I have previously discussed, the U.S. is now caught in a vicious trap:
Slow growth keeps the under-employment level (U6) high and also means minimal raises for employed workers The resulting economic slack leads to
Low Inflation. But low inflation in turn means that the Federal Reserve can maintain
Low Interest Rates to try to encourage borrowing. But an unfortunate side effect of low interest rates is that Congress can borrow at will and run up huge deficits without really having to worry about paying interest on this “free” money. This leads to
Massive Debt. But what is going to happen when inflation does eventually take off and the Fed is forced to raise interest rates? Then we will be stuck with huge interest payments on our accumulated debt. When this happens, interest payments plus ever growing entitlement spending will eat up most, if not all, of the federal budget. This will inevitably lead to a severe
Conclusion. It is absolutely imperative to speed up economic growth. Follow me on Twitter Follow me on Facebook
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
There is only one source of growth. Nothing other than productivity matters in the long run.
The vast expansion in regulation is the most obvious change in public policy accompanying America’s growth slowdown. Most recently under the Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Care Act, the financial and healthcare sectors of the economy have seen radical increases in regulatory intervention. But environmental, labor, product and energy regulation have all increased dramatically as well.
Regulation during the financial crisis did not fail for being absent. It failed for being ineffective.
The best way for the government to subsidize healthcare efficiently is to give straightforward vouchers which people can use to buy insurance or to fund health savings accounts. Such vouchers should replace Obamacare, Medicaid and Medicare.
The basic structure of growth-oriented tax reform is lower marginal rates, paid for by broadening the base by removing exemptions and loopholes. Several additional tax principles are:
The ideal corporate tax rate is zero. A high corporate tax rate hurts the workers more than anyone else.
A growth-oriented tax system taxes consumption, not income and savings.
Eliminating or moving away from taxing income, would lessen the value of personal deductions such as for mortgage interest or charitable donations.
The estate tax is a particularly distorting tax on saving and investment. The tax code should not give strong incentives to middle-age people to stop building their businesses or investing their money.
Solving our immigration problem would turn 11 million illegal immigrants into productive citizens. Guest worker and e-Verify enforcement are fixable problems.
How to speed up economic growth ought to be one of the basic issues in the presidential election campaign. Here are some good ways to do this.
The economist Alan Blinder has just reported, “The Mystery of Declining Productivity Growth” that U.S. productivity growth has fallen dramatically in the last few years. “The healthy 2.6% a year from 1995-2010 has since been an anemic 0.4%. What’s scary is that we don’t know why.” The economists Edward Prescott and Lee Ohanian believe the productivity slowdown is caused by a corresponding slowdown in new startups (as illustrated by the above chart). They point out, for example, that:
The creation rate of new businesses in 2011 was 30% lower than the average rate of the 1980s.
New startups are critical for growth since many of today’s heavyweights will decline as new businesses take their place. For example, only half of the Fortune 500 firms in 1995 remained on that list in 2010.
Startups in high technology have also declined since 2000 even though there is no slowdown in the development of new technology.
Consistent with the recommendations of James Bessen in a recent post of mine, “Learning by Doing,” Messrs. Prescott and Ohanian recommend policy changes such as:
Better training, plus immigration reform, to produce more skilled workers.
Streamlining regulations that raise cost, especially for small businesses.
Tax reform to reduce marginal tax rates.
Reforming Dodd-Frank to make it easier for small businesses to obtain loans from main street banks.
In today’s New York Times, the economist Tyler Cowen wonders whether our economy is in the midst of a “Great Reset.” “Perhaps the most crucial issue is whether economies will return to normal conditions of steady growth, or whether we are witnessing a fundamental transformation” to a less productive economy.
Here’s another way to put it: shall we attempt to adopt better pro-growth policies or shall we just give in to the status quo and accept that we can’t do any better? Are we optimists or are we pessimists?
The 2015 Economic Report of the President has just been released. It shows that the slow growth of productivity is playing a bigger role in squeezing middle class incomes than the rise of economic inequality. The above chart makes some dire predictions:
The labor force, which has averaged 1.5% growth since 1950, is likely to grow just .5% a year in coming decades, because any increase in new workers is likely to be swamped out by baby-boomer retirements.
Productivity has grown just 1.3% a year since the end of the last expansion in 2007.
These two figures together predict an anemic, less than 2% growth, economy going forward.
The President proposes several policies to address this slow growth:
Immigration Reform would provide more highly skilled workers for the economy as well as a more efficient guest worker system for low-income labor.
Increased Foreign Trade would expand our export economy.
An Expanded Workforce could be achieved with a higher Earned Income Tax Credit to boost dual-income households.
An increase of Infrastructure spending of 1% of GDP is estimated to boost output by 2.8% after 10 years.
Corporate Tax Reform would encourage U.S. multinationals to bring their foreign profits home for reinvestment.
These are good ideas but much more could be done as well:
Individual Income Tax Reform, exchanging lower tax rates for all by closing loopholes and deductions would boost spending by middle- and lower-income tax payers.
Reforming Social Security and Medicare by setting higher retirement ages would encourage longer work lives.
Reforming the Affordable Care Act by removing the employer mandate would boost productivity by making the labor market more efficient.
Faster economic growth will not only reduce unemployment, it will also make it much easier to shrink the deficit as more tax revenue is raised. This should be one of the very highest priorities for our elected representatives in Washington!
The economist and public lecturer, Richard Wolff, gave an address in Omaha NE last night, entitled “Capitalism in Crisis: How Lopsided Wealth Distribution Threatens Our Democracy”. His thesis is that after 150 years, from 1820 – 1970, of steadily increasing worker productivity and matching wage gains, a structural change has taken place in our economy. Since 1970 worker productivity has continued to increase at the same historical rate while the median wage level has been flat with no appreciable increase. This wage stagnation has been caused by an imbalance of supply and demand as follows:
Technology has eliminated lots of low skill and medium skill jobs in the U.S.
Globalization has made it less expensive for low skill jobs to be performed in the developing world at lower cost than in the U.S.
At the same time as jobs were being replaced by technology and disappearing overseas, millions of women entered the labor force.
A new wave of Hispanic immigration has caused even more competition for low skilled jobs.
In addition, stagnant wages for the low skilled and medium skilled worker have been accompanied by an increase in private debt through the advent of credit cards and subprime mortgage borrowing. This enormous increase of consumer debt led to the housing bubble, its bursting in 2007-2008, and the resulting Great Recession.
Five years after the end of the recession in June 2009, we still have an enormous mess on our hands: a stagnant economy, high unemployment, massive and increasing debt and a fractious political process. How in the world are we going to come together to address our perilous situation in a rational and timely manner?
Mr. Wolff believes that capitalism’s faults are too severe to be fixed with regulatory tweaks. He also agrees that socialism has proven to be unsuccessful where it has been tried. He proposes a new economic system of “Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises” as an alternative.
I agree with Mr. Wolff that capitalism is in a crisis but I think that it can be repaired from within. The challenge is to simultaneously give our economy a sufficient boost to put millions of people back to work and to do this while dramatically shrinking our annual deficits in order to get our massive debt on a downward trajectory as a percent of GDP. How to do this is the main focus of my blog, day in and day out!
The social economist William Galston has a column, in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “Closing the Productivity and Pay Gap”, discussing the large gap between the rising productivity of American workers and the stagnant pay level which has developed since 1973 (see below). He points out that “the erosion of the compensation/productivity link has made it harder to sustain robust domestic demand for goods and services, which constitutes more than two-thirds of our entire economy. As the gap widened, U.S. households responded by sending more women into the workforce, expanding the numbers of hours worked, and taking on a greater burden of debt. These strategies have hit a wall. Unless compensation rises more rapidly, stagnant domestic demand will depress economic growth as far as the eye can see.” In other words, workers are no longer receiving their fair share of the productivity gains. And this retards the increased economic growth which we all desire. Without detracting from the seriousness of Mr. Galston’s argument, I would like to make several observations which are pertinent to the discussion. First of all, as pointed out by the Heritage Foundation (in the second chart), wage stagnation since 1973 does not take into account the growth of total compensation including healthcare and other benefits. And since healthcare costs are twice what they are in any other country, this is a huge drag on the growth of worker’s pay. In other words, if the U.S. were able to cut healthcare costs nearly in half, as should be possible with a more efficient system, then the hundreds of billions of dollars saved would give a huge boost to paychecks. Secondly (as shown in the last chart), there is a direct correlation between wages and education level for U.S. workers. Of course, boosting educational outcomes is much easier said than done and, in any event, is a long term process. Nevertheless, any highly motivated and ambitious person can increase their earnings prospects by succeeding in school. Finally, a combination of minimum wage increases and perhaps an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit can help those people at the lowest levels of the income scale earn a living wage as long as they are willing to work. As Mr. Galston said in an earlier piece, “We need nothing less than a new norm – a revised social contract – that links compensation to productivity. And because we cannot return to the conditions that once sustained that link, we need new policies to bring it about.”