I have no antagonism for Barack Obama. He was elected because of the unpopularity of the Iraq War and George Bush who started it. He inherited the Financial Crisis and pulled us out of it without another depression. He has put us on the road to universal healthcare even though the structure of the Affordable Care Act does little to control costs. But overall, the negatives of his presidency outweigh the positives. Consider the situation we are currently in:
Stagnant Economy. The annual rate of growth of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009 has been an anemic 2% compared to our historical growth rate of 3% since the end of WWII. Although the official unemployment rate is down to a respectable 5%, there are millions of unemployed and underemployed people who have stopped looking for work. Obama and the Democrats in Congress have little interest in the tax reform and deregulatory measures which would boost economic growth.
Massive Debt. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) has doubled to over $13 trillion on Obama’s watch. As the Federal Reserve begins to raise interest rates to ward off inflation, interest payments on this debt will increase enormously. It is absolutely imperative to begin to substantially shrink our annual budget deficits. The Democratic Party, under his leadership, has expressed no willingness to do this.
Chaotic Middle East. The rise of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and North Africa, and the resulting refugee crisis in Europe is the result of weak U.S. leadership in the Middle East. Peace and stability depends on a strong U.S. presence in all trouble spots around the world. We neglect this responsibility at our peril.
Hyper-partisan Political Atmosphere. Stalemate in addressing these and other serious problems has led to the rise of extremist presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Moderate candidates with successful experience in elected office are unable to gain political traction.
Our country is in a big mess. We are being guided by ideology rather than common sense. I am optimistic by nature. But it’s awfully easy to be pessimistic about our future.
As we celebrate the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Americans have much to be thankful for. It is often said that the United States is the strongest, wealthiest and freest country the world has ever known. Although this may be somewhat of an exaggeration (see below), it is still indicative of how fortunate we are compared to the rest of the world. As we celebrate our good fortune, we need to be acutely aware that our continued success as a great nation is not automatically assured. In fact we face a number of troubling and persistent problems which are not likely to disappear unless we take strong action to address them. For example we have:
A stagnant economy with only 2.2% annual growth since the end of the Great Recession. And the Congressional Budget Office predicts no speed up over at least the next ten years, based on current policy. Such slow growth condemns 20 million unemployed and underemployed citizens to unfulfilling lives, as well as lackluster pay raises for many more tens of millions.
Massive debt. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) is now at 74% of GDP, highest since the end of WWII, and predicted by the CBO to grow rapidly under current policies. When interest rates return to the normal 5% level, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket, making it much more difficult to fund all of the federal programs we depend on for our quality of life.
Increasing Income Inequality is real even if overhyped in the media. America is still a land of great opportunity but basic fairness demands that all citizens be able to share in our national abundance.
Threats from abroad. ISIS now controls much of Iraq, Syria and northern Africa and must be defeated. NATO needs our very strong support, all the more so with the Eurozone and European Common Market under increasing pressure from within.
As the strongest nation in the world we have much responsibility for continued world peace and prosperity. We can’t fulfill this role adequately unless our own internal fiscal and economic policies are in fundamentally sound shape.
Let’s be thankful for what we have and bear down hard to insure that we keep it!
‘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. My 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 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!
I have been focusing lately on America’s two biggest fiscal and economic problems:
How to boost the economy in order to put more people back to work
How to either cut spending or raise revenue in order to shrink the deficit.
A few days ago in “The Great Wage Slowdown and How to Fix It,” I laid out a fairly specific proposal to make a substantial reduction in tax preferences in order to cut tax rates across the board and especially for the 64% of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions. These are the middle- and lower-income workers with stagnant incomes who would likely spend any tax savings they received thereby giving the economy a big boost. Let’s examine whether or not this is a realistic course of action. The above chart from the Congressional Budget Office document, “The Distribution of Major Tax Expenditures in the Individual Income Tax System,” shows that, for example, the upper 10% of households by income receive about 40% of the total $1 trillion in individual tax expenditures per year. Furthermore, this same top 10% of tax payers have an income of about $140,000 or more (Congressional Research Service). My basic idea is to shrink tax preferences by $250 billion per year and to lower tax rates for middle- and lower-income non-itemizers by this same amount. If we assume that they would spend 2/3 of this new income, it would boost the economy by $170 billion per year which is 1% of GDP.
A reasonable way to achieve this savings is to expect higher income earners to contribute a greater percentage of their tax preference savings. For example:
top 1% contribute $110 billion (2/3 of their total deductions).
top 96th % to 99th % contribute $50 billion (1/2 of their total deductions).
top 91st % to 95th % contribute $30 billion (1/3 of their total deductions).
top 81st % to 90th % contribute $30 billion (1/4 of their total deductions).
top 61st % to 80th % contribute $30 billion (1/5 of their total deductions).
this gives a total of $250 billion in tax preference savings.
This back-of-the-envelope calculation is not intended to be definitive but rather to suggest what can be done along these lines. Those who are more well-off need to make bigger sacrifices in getting our economy back on track.
There seems to be a general consensus on the reality of increasing income inequality in the U.S. and even some agreement on its two main causes: globalization and the rapid spread of technology. The slow growth of the economy since the end of the recession has made the inequality problem that much worse. Not surprisingly, slow economic growth in the past five years has led to stagnant wages for many workers. My last post addressed this problem. The above chart from the New York Times shows that incomes for top wage earners have been rising in recent years while they have been stagnant for middle- and lower-income workers.
But there is more to it than this. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Mark Warshawsky and Andrew Biggs point out that, “Income Inequality and Rising Health-Care Costs,” in the years 1999 – 2006, total pay and benefits for low income workers rose by 41% while wages rose by only 28%, barely outpacing inflation. For workers making $250,000 or more total compensation rose by a lesser 36% while wages grew by a greater 35%. This apparent anomaly is explained by the fact that health insurance costs are relatively flat across all income categories, thus comprising a much larger percentage of the total pay package of low-income workers than for high-income workers. In fact, the Kaiser Foundation has shown that low-wage workers tend to pay higher health insurance premiums, as well as receiving lower insurance benefits, than higher paid workers (see the above chart).
Overall, what this means is that employer provided healthcare is taking a huge chunk out of the earnings of low-income workers which makes income inequality much worse than it would be otherwise. Of course, the cost of healthcare is a huge burden for the entire U.S. economy, currently eating up 17.3% of GDP, twice as much as for any other developed country.
For both of these reasons it is an urgent matter for the U.S. to get healthcare costs under control. Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute has an excellent plan to do just this as I have discussed in several recent posts.
Why has the recovery from the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009 been so slow? Many mainstream economists blame structural problems in the economy such as more global competition for business and technological progress which replaces people by machines. Other economists blame greatly increased government regulation since 2009 such as the Affordable Care Act in healthcare, The Dodd-Frank Act for finance and many new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. The economist Casey Mulligan, writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “A Recovery Stymied by Redistribution”, makes a case that government programs designed to alleviate the effects of the recession have made it deeper and more prolonged. Such actions include:
Long-term unemployment insurance
Looser restrictions on food stamps which do not require recipients to seek work
Mortgage assistance programs which set mortgage payments at “affordable” levels
New rules for consumer bankruptcy with special emphasis on current earnings
Mr. Mulligan’s point is that all of these new programs, like taxes, reduce incentives to work and earn.
But, by definition, structural effects are endemic and can’t be overturned. Also, some government reaction to the financial crisis, in order to prevent recurrence, was inevitable. And it is natural for the government to be responsive to the human misery caused by the recession. All of these points of view help us understand what has happened but don’t provide much guidance for boosting economic growth going forward.
The Great Recession was fundamentally caused by the bursting of the housing bubble which destroyed trillions of dollars of wealth for tens of millions of Americans. The recovery won’t speed up until many more millions of consumers feel comfortable in spending more money. We need to put more money in their pockets.
A very good way to accomplish this, as I have been saying over and over again, is through fundamental tax reform. The idea would be to lower individual income tax rates for everyone, and pay for this by closing the loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. This will put big bucks in the hands of the two-thirds of Americans who do not itemize their deductions. Since these are the middle and lower income wage earners whose wages have been stagnant for many years, they will spend this new income in their pockets thereby giving the economy a big boost.
Let’s do it!
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!