The American economy has been stagnating since the end of the 20th century and has grown especially slowly (2% per year on average) since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. This slow growth has various unpleasant causes and consequences:
Men without Work. The political economist, Nicholas Eberstadt, has pointed out that the work rate for prime working age (25 – 54) men has dropped from 94.1% in 1948 to 84.3% in 2015. This translates into 9.5 million prime working age men who are not currently in the workforce.
Mortality Crisis. The economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, show that the mortality rate for working class whites in America, aged 45 – 54, has doubled since 1990, and that these new deaths are largely “deaths of despair.”
Complacency. The economist, Tyler Cowen, makes a strong case that too many Americans are so comfortable in their own worlds that they have become complacent about the structural problems facing American society.
Segregation by Class. The political scientist Charles Murray has described a separation of American society into a new Upper Class (20% of all Americans) and a new Lower Class (30% of all Americans) with the Upper Class enjoying the four deepest satisfactions of life: family, vocation, community and faith while the Lower Class is largely left out.
What can be done to improve the fortunes of America’s blue-collar workers? There are actually a lot of things:
Greatly improve vocational training for the millions of skilled jobs for which there aren’t enough qualified applicants.
Revitalize America’s job-generating capacities. More businesses have closed than opened each year since the Financial Crisis.
Reverse the perverse disincentives against male work embedded in our social welfare systems. The Earned Income Tax Credit should be extended to single adults without dependents. Eligibility for disability income should be tightened considerably.
Come to terms with the enormous challenge of bringing convicts and felons back into society. The huge increase in incarceration rates in recent years has coincided with a dramatic drop in rates for both violent crime and property crime.
Conclusion. It’s a scandal that so many blue-collar workers are struggling to live a fulfilling life. There are many different actions government can take to improve their lot.
I’ve had several posts recently elaborating on the theme of Tyler Cowen’s new book, “The Complacent Class,” that too many Americans have become complacent about the comfortable life which they now enjoy.
Let’s take a different approach today and consider some of the problems which large numbers of Americans really are concerned about:
The election of Donald Trump as President. Granted, he just barely squeaked through in the Electoral College with 46% of the popular vote. He makes outlandish statements which have little, if any, basis in fact. But he has appointed many capable cabinet secretaries and other assistants and he listens to them. He adjusts his policies when struck down by the courts. In my opinion he has suffered no major mistakes so far.
Increasing income inequality in American society. This is a problem but, as Nicholas Eberstadt has pointed out, the real problem is income insecurity for millions of blue-collar workers. The best solution here is faster economic growth which the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress hope to achieve through tax reform and deregulation.
Global Warming. More and more Americans understand the increasing severity of this problem. There is a fair chance that a revenue neutral carbon tax will be implemented in the near future. This would be a big boost toward controlling carbon emissions in the U.S. and would provide more clout in establishing worldwide emission standards as well.
A chaotic world. Terrorism will not go away but at least ISIS will soon be defeated as an independent state. Other worldwide threats such as China, Russia and Iran can be managed with a strong U.S. military force undergirded by a strong U.S. economy.
Conclusion. The above problems are considered by large numbers of people to be serious and are therefore being addressed in one way or another. But our biggest problem of all, massive debt, is off the radar for much of the political class, including President Trump. It needs to be taken far more seriously than it is before we have another, and much more severe, financial crisis.
Everybody should read Tyler Cowen’s compelling new book, “The Complacent Class.” As I have discussed in two recent posts, here and here, Mr. Cowen lays out the thesis that America has lost much of its dynamism in recent years because life has become so comfortable for so many people, especially the professional elites.
But now things are looking even better yet:
A global economic upturn is under way, especially in manufacturing.
The Federal Reserve is continuing to raise interest rates, confident that fundamental data on employment and inflation (see chart) is looking more and more positive.
Progress is being made on fixing the American healthcare system even if it’s not as good as it could be.
The Republican Congress and Trump Administration are united in their desire for corporate and business tax reform which will give the American economy a big boost when it gets done.
These trends auger well for the American economy in the immediate future. However there is one very dark cloud on the horizon:
Our national debt (the public part on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII and is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep steadily getting worse without fundamental changes in public policy. In fact, the debt limit, which had been suspended in November 2015, was reinstated by law on March 16. It will have to be raised in the next few months in order to avoid default by the federal government.
I fervently hope that the fiscal conservatives in Congress (such as the Republican Study Group and the Freedom Caucus) will insist on real fiscal restraint going forward as their price for voting to raise the debt limit.
Conclusion. We affluent Americans are so wrapped up in enjoying our good fortune that we lose track of a huge problem on the not so distant horizon. Our prosperity is being heavily financed with borrowed money and we will soon have to pay the piper, unless we are willing to bite the bullet. Do we have the political will to do this?
My last post, “What Ails America? I. Complacency,” lays out the thesis of the economist Tyler Cowen that American society has become much too complacent, i.e. self-satisfied, in recent years. In particular:
Fewer Americans are moving.
Segregation (by income, education, social class and race) is increasing.
Americans have stopped creating. New business creation is down and monopolies are getting stronger.
Matching (i.e. assortative mating) is on the upswing.
Calm and safety above all is the predominant attitude.
These societal trends are normal and even desirable in many respects. But they can lead to stagnation. Eventually needed social change will boil over in uncontrollable ways and America will undergo a “Great Reset.”
This will likely involve major events such as:
A major fiscal and budgetary crisis. Currently our public debt (on which we pay interest) is 77% of GDP, the highest since just after WWII. It will keep rising steadily without a major change in public policy. When interest rates return to more normal higher levels, interest payments on our debt will be a huge drain, without letup, on our tax revenue.
The inability of government to adjust to the next global emergency which comes along. When the financial crisis came along in 2008, debt was at the much smaller level of 38% of GDP. This allowed for temporary fiscal stimulus and larger deficits to ride out the resulting recession. With our currently high debt level, we’ll have far less flexibility when the next recession comes along.
A rebellion of many less-skilled men. The median male wage (adjusted for inflation) was higher in 1969 than it is today. In fact, the take-home pay for typical American workers has been falling since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. To a large extent this explains the rise of Donald Trump.
A resurgence of crime. A new crime wave will probably be internet related. There are now tens of millions of identity thefts, phishing attacks and successful but fraudulent pleas for cash every year. Internet crime is calmer than traditional crime and less visible. But the next crime wave could badly damage internet commerce.
Conclusion. Mr. Cowen paints a depressing picture for the future of American society. Of course, it is possible to turn some or all of these negative developments around. But will a complacent American populace have the political will to do it?
The economist, Tyler Cowen, has just published a very interesting new book, “The Complacent Class,” which makes a strong case that American society has lost much of its dynamism in recent years largely because of our increasing fascination with the world of information.
Here are some of the features of societal complacency:
Fewer Americans are moving. There is less rapid job turnover today and a lower rate of entry for new businesses. Large firms are replacing smaller firms and they have less employee turnover. Globalization exports some jobs from the U.S. but leaves the country with a more stable set of jobs overall. The lack of geographic mobility is holding back income mobility.
The Reemergence of segregation. In fact there is more segregation by income, by education, by social class and by race. The most heavily segregated cities are the high-tech, knowledge-based metros. This is because the rich and well-educated are keener to live together in tighter bunches and groups. In addition, nationwide the average black student attends a school which is only 8.3% white.
Americans have stopped creating. Startups were 13% of the firms in the country in the 1980s but only 7% today. It is harder for new firms to get up and running and successful firms stick around longer. Market concentration is growing in the U.S. There are only two major phone carriers, four major airlines, and major health insurance companies are likely to consolidate from five to three. Nearly 2/3 of publicly traded companies were selling in more concentrated markets in 2013 than in 1996.
Matching continues to spread. In the 1930s 1/3 of urban Americans married people who lived within five blocks. For couples who married between 2005 and 2012, 1/3 of them met online. In other words, “assortative mating” has become much more common. Family-connected decisions accounted for 1/3 of the rise in income inequality from 1960 to 2005. Internet matching also helps in job searches. Clearly, matching is disproportionately benefitting better-educated and more productive workers.
Calm and safety above all. Physical disruptions, in the form of riots or protests, are harder to accomplish these days compared to the 1960s and 1970s. Police departments are more sophisticated and use managerial science, information technology and surveillance to control potential troublemakers. Antidepressants are now used by tens of millions of Americans. The heavy use of electronic screens keeps kids calmer and more tranquil. Our more “feminized” culture is allergic to many forms of conflict.
Conclusion. “Americans are working harder to postpone change or to avoid it altogether. This is true for corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, building things, and social relationships.” This “complacency” has huge political ramifications. Stay tuned!
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?
As I remind readers from time to time, this blog is focused on the fiscal and economic problems of the U.S. Our biggest fiscal problem is not having enough tax revenue to pay our bills. Our biggest economic problem is a stagnant economy which leaves too many people unemployed or underemployed.
My last three post have been on the subject of climate change. This is a worldwide problem which has a huge effect on the U.S. There’s going to be a cost in cutting way back on carbon emissions. But there will soon be a much greater cost if we don’t cut back and therefore suffer the growing adverse environmental effects.
Now there is another looming problem. The journal Science has just published the article “World population stabilization unlikely this century,” reporting that world population, now 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100. Much of the increase will take place in Africa due to higher fertility rates because of a recent slowdown in the pace of fertility decline. The implications of a growing world population are huge:
First of all, it will add even more stress to an environment which is already being increasingly stressed by global warming.
Secondly, it will aggravate a slowdown in middle-income wage growth throughout the developed world. This is very evident in the above chart. What is happening is that the force of globalization is shifting lower skilled work to lower paid workers in the developing world. A larger population in the developing world will simply exacerbate this trend.
The noted economist, Tyler Cowen, has a different perspective on this problem, “A Strategy for Rich Countries: Absorb More Immigrants,” in today’s New York Times. But Mr. Cowen’s approach is untenable for the long run. The idea that you can offset an increase in the elderly population with an even bigger increase in the younger population will lead to an ever-growing overall population.
What then is the answer to over-population? It is either more birth control or less sex. Take your pick!
The Department of Commerce has just reported basic economic data for the second quarter of 2014. As the chart below shows, the economy gradually lost steam from 2004 – 2008, sunk badly in 2008 and 2009, and has now grown at a slow but steady rate of about 2% during the period 2010 – 2014. One of my favorite journalists, the New York Times’ economics reporter Eduardo Porter, has just written again on the topic of inequality, “Income Inequality and the Ills behind It.” He quotes the economist Tyler Cowen as saying “The right moral question is ‘are poor people rising to a higher standard of living?’ Inequality itself is the wrong thing to look at. The real problem is slow growth.” The economist Gregory Mankiw is quoted as saying that “Policies which address the symptom (of inequality) rather than the cause include higher taxes and a more generous safety net. The magnitude of what we can plausibly do with these policy tools is small compared to the size of the growing income gap.”
What Mr. Cowen and Mr. Mankiw are both suggesting is that we can’t effectively attack income inequality without also increasing economic growth. I believe that it is possible to address both problems at the same time by implementing broad-based tax reform as follows:
Individual income tax rates should be lowered across the board, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, in a revenue neutral way.
The 64% of all taxpayers who do not itemize deductions will get a significant tax cut. Since they are largely the middle and lower-income wage earners with stagnant incomes, they will tend to spend their tax savings, thereby giving the economy a big boost.
At the same time the 36% of taxpayers who do itemize their deductions will, on average, see their income taxes go up. But these are, on the whole, the wealthier wage earners who can afford to pay higher taxes.
A plan such as this represents a shift of net after-tax income from more wealthy people to the less wealthy. It therefore reduces income inequality.
If we can cut tax rates, increase economic growth and reduce income inequality all at once, why can’t our national leaders come together and act along these lines?
The George Mason University economist, Tyler Cowen, has written a provocative new book entitled “Average is Over”, which has just been reviewed by the Economist: “The American Dream, RIP?” . His thesis is that the slow recovery of middle class jobs following the Great Recession of 2008-2009 portends a new economy more and more devoid of middle class jobs and broad prosperity.
Mr. Tyler says that “An elite 10-15% of Americans will have the brains and self-discipline to master tomorrow’s technology and extract profit from it. They will enjoy great wealth and stimulating lives. Others will endure stagnant or even falling wages as employers measure their output with ‘oppressive precision’. Some will thrive as service providers to the rich….Young men will struggle in a labor market which rewards conscientiousness over muscle.” Some highly motivated individuals, born poor, will be able to move into the elite group with cheap online education. This creates overall a sense of “hyper-meritocracy” at the top which “will make it easier to ignore those left behind.”
What Mr. Cowen has done is to take the strong social and economic forces of globalization and technology, add to this mix emerging machine intelligence (Google is a prime example) and then to use his vivid imagination to conjure up an image of what life will be like in the not so distant future. America will still likely be the dominant country in the world but the historically strong middle class will shrink as the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
Is this pessimistic vision of America’s future inevitable? Is there anything we can do to at least slow down if not to reverse these trends?
Speeding up economic growth is our only chance to turn things around and mitigate this grim future. Better K-12 education (and therefore early child education as well) will help in the long run. In the short run, broad based tax reform, healthcare cost control, relaxing overly burdensome regulations, and immigration reform are the four things which will help the most. The same old basic stuff is what we need to do! Tyler Cowen’s story just makes the need for such changes more compelling and more urgent!