It is generally agreed that Donald Trump’s great success as a presidential candidate is his strong appeal to working class white voters, often described as white voters without a college degree. It is also widely agreed that Mr. Trump is unsuited to be president, based on his unstable temperament as well as a poor understanding of many basic issues. As I have described in a previous post, the quality of life for working class white men has been declining for many years. Nevertheless it has gotten even worse since the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and our slow recovery from it.
Steven Rattner, in yesterday’s New York Times, blames the Republican Congress for the rise of Mr. Trump because of Republican opposition to President Obama’s economic agenda as follows:
Opposition to the American Jobs Act of 2011 which proposed a $447 billion package of measures including payroll tax cuts and the creation of an infrastructure bank which would have created thousands of construction jobs.
Opposition to continuing federal emergency benefits for the large number of long-term unemployed.
Apparent opposition to a recent plan for wage insurance. Under this proposal a worker who lost a job and was forced to take a lower wage job which paid less than $50,000 per year, would receive half of the lost wages for two years, up to $10,000.
These aren’t necessarily bad ideas. In fact I think wage insurance is an excellent idea, as long as it is paid for and does not add to deficit spending. The problem is that these measures do not generally address the basic problem of slow economic growth, averaging just 2.1% of GDP since the end of the recession in June 2009. Only by speeding up economic growth, with fundamental tax reform, both individual and corporate, can our economy support both the new jobs and higher paying jobs that will create broad-based prosperity in the United States.
It is both detrimental and inaccurate for supporters of President Obama to blame political opposition for the plight of working class Americans.
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.
The former Obama administration auto czar, Steven Rattner, wrote in yesterday’s New York Times that “We Have to Step in And Save Detroit” from bankruptcy. Detroit has $18 billion in liabilities, half of which are for municipal employee pension plans and retiree health benefits. Mr. Rattner says that “It isn’t fair to cut pensions. The workers didn’t cause this mess.”
Many state and local governments are indeed in terrible financial condition because of the cost of public employee pensions. There have already been several municipal bankruptcies around the country and there will be many more. The state of Illinois is in particularly bad financial shape, for the same reasons as Detroit, and will almost certainly have to declare bankruptcy in the near future.
The basic problem is that state and municipal governments often have so-called “defined benefit” pension plans for their employees rather than the “defined contribution”, or 401(k), retirement plans used by private business. Defined benefit plans guarantee a certain level of pension payment, based on the employee’s salary, regardless of the investment returns of the contributions to the fund. Defined contribution plans, on the contrary, only pay out in benefits what has actually been accumulated in investment earnings. For a defined benefit plan the employer (i.e. the government and therefore the taxpayers) is at risk for any shortfall in funding. For a defined contribution plan, the individual employee is at risk for underperforming investment of the fund. The only viable solution to this massive problem is for state and local government to shift as rapidly as possible from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement plans.
For the federal government to jump in and bail out one particular struggling municipality would create a moral hazard. Every other state and local government with the same problem, numbering in the hundreds or thousands, would want equal treatment. The federal government can’t afford such an expense because of its own perilous financial condition. Furthermore, federal aid would just delay the fundamental changes in fiscal policy which must be made at the state and local level.
It is a very bad idea for the federal government to bail out Detroit!