Addressing Poverty in a Free and Dynamic Society

 

With an unemployment rate now down to 4.2% and the average wage rising 3.1% in the past year, the U.S. is finally recovering from the Great Recession which ended in June 2009. My last several posts have described an optimistic scenario for the U.S. economy going forward.

  • The American idea is thriving.  The U.S. is the world’s most competitive large economy. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are in the process of revolutionizing all aspects of life, all over the world. Productivity growth in the digital industries has grown at the annual rate of 2.7%, much faster than for physical industries. Democracy is mostly flourishing around the world.
  • Ecommerce is one example of a thriving industry.   Fulfillment center weekly wages are 31% higher on average than for brick and mortar retail in the same area. Total ecommerce related jobs have increased much faster in the last two years than have traditional retail jobs been lost.
  • Income inequality can be addressed effectively by speeding up economic growth (with tax and regulatory reform), improving educational (especially with early childhood) opportunities and with better training programs for the unemployed and underemployed to qualify them for the millions of skilled jobs going begging for lack of qualified applicants.

One additional feature needed is “A balanced and sensible anti-poverty program,”  to help many of the down and out get back on their feet.


The way to accomplish this is with:

  • Work requirements as a condition of public assistance. The work first approach has been shown to have better outcomes with regard to attachment to the labor force (see above chart) than even approaches which focus on training and education.

Conclusion. The U.S. economy is basically sound. We lead the world in many industries and especially in digital technology.  There are lots of good jobs going begging for lack of qualified applicants.  The best anti-poverty program is job training.

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Income Inequality in a Dynamic Economy

 

I have pointed out in a recent post that, not only is the U.S. the world’s most competitive large economy, but also that our per-capita GDP is growing faster than for our nearest rivals.
A particularly vivid example of this dynamism is ecommerce where both the adjusted (gains minus losses) size of the workforce and the average wage are increasing rapidly.
We also know that incomes in the U.S. are rising faster at the high end rather than further down (see chart below).  What to do about this has become a major political issue.


Here are my ideas (in rough order of importance):

  • Economic growth is too slow, averaging just 2% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. It is reasonable to expect that the regulatory reform already underway and the tax reform under consideration in Congress can increase growth to 2.5% per year.  Together with our low unemployment rate of 4.2%, this is already leading to more and better paying jobs.
  • Improve educational opportunities by, for example, making early childhood education widely available to low-income families and attracting the best teachers to the poorest performing schools with targeted bonus pay.
  • Better vocational and retraining programs to prepare the unemployed and underemployed for the millions of skilled jobs now going begging for a lack of qualified applicants.
  • Attempt to address the social inequality associated with income inequality, see here.  Marriage rates, civic involvement and public trust have all declined significantly in recent years for the lower class. A very difficult problem to solve!

Conclusion.   In a free society like the U.S., providing self-help opportunities for advancement is the natural and preferred way of lifting up people who need assistance. The U.S. does a okay job in this respect but there is plenty of room for improvement.

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Why Entitlement Spending Is So Difficult to Control

 

The readers of this blog know that my favorite topic is our very large national debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest) and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep steadily getting worse, without major changes in current policy.


It is also well documented (see chart)  that our entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of the huge annual budget deficits which make the accumulated debt so much worse and worse.
The economist John Cogan has an informative interview in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal explaining why entitlement spending is so difficult to control. First of all, according to Mr. Cogan, only three modern presidents have made any effort to control entitlement spending:

  • FDR who persuaded Congress to repeal unjustified disability entitlements to 400,000 WWI, Philippine War and Boxer Rebellion veterans.
  • Ronald Reagan “slowed the growth of entitlements like no other president ever had.”
  • Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform plan not only reduced welfare’s burden on taxpayers but also benefitted the recipients, whom the old program had been harming.

 

Mr. Cogan identified three necessary political conditions for any entitlement reform. They are:

  • Presidential leadership “without which there has never been a significant reduction in an entitlement.”
  • Significant agreement among the general public and the elected representatives that there’s a problem.
  • Bipartisan consensus on the solution for correcting the problem.

Conclusion.  Think about it.  This is a quite a gloomy assessment.  Nothing will get done on the primary reason for our huge debt problem without both presidential leadership and bipartisan political support. When is this going to happen?

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Donald Trump and American Progress

 

I am a non-ideological (registered independent) fiscal conservative and social moderate. I was not very excited about either presidential candidate last fall but finally decided to vote for Clinton because of Trump’s sleaziness.
As it turned out Mr.Trump was elected because of his strong support from the white working class, especially in the upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.  Interestingly, the Democrats are responding by proposing legislation to try to appeal more strongly to blue-collar workers.
Of course I disapprove of Donald Trump’s poor handling of the Charlottesville tragedy but I try to avoid being distracted by all of the drama and rather stay focused on his policies and actions.  In this respect there are both plusses and minuses.


On the positive side:

  • North Korea. He is handling this crisis well simply by working through the UN to condemn North Korea’s provocative testing of ballistic missiles. Also his Administration has clearly stated that the goal of U.S. policy is to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, not to achieve regime change in North Korea.
  • The economy is still chugging along at 2% annual growth. On the deregulation front, the annualized pace of new regulations for 2017 is 61,000 pages, down from 97,000 in 2016. This is the lowest level since the 1970s and has the potential to speed up growth.

On the negative side:

  • NAFTA renegotiation is just getting started. Any shrinkage of U.S. exports will badly hurt the economy, especially in states like Nebraska which depend so much on agricultural exports.
  • Immigration. Mr. Trump proposes to dramatically decrease annual legal immigration quotas, especially for low-skilled workers. This is a very poor idea  which will hurt the economy, especially in states like Nebraska which have low unemployment rates.

Conclusion. President Trump’s record at this point is mixed, all the more so since the two very important issues of the 2018 budget and tax reform have yet to be resolved in Congress. Mr. Trump’s election may or may not be good for progress in America.  We simply don’t know yet.

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The Major Challenges Facing the U. S. II. National Debt

 

My last post, “The Major Challenges Facing the United States,” came to the conclusion that, while the U.S. has many big problems to address, our national debt is the biggest problem of all, because it will be so hard to deal with through the political process.
Our total national debt is now $19.9 trillion. The so-called public debt, on which we pay interest, is $15 trillion, or 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII.  Furthermore it is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse, reaching 90% of GDP by 2025 and 150% of GDP by 2047 unless current policy is substantially changed.
Right now our debt is almost “free” money since interest rates are so low.  But when interest rates return to more normal levels, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, likely leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
The only sane solution to this humongous problem is to start shrinking our annual deficits, this year at about $685 billion, down close to zero over a period of several years.  This will require a painful combination of spending curtailments and perhaps some tax increases as well.


One possible way to accomplish this herculean task has been laid out by Barron’s economic journalist Gene Epstein, see here and here.  Mr. Epstein’s plan would balance the budget in ten years by decreasing projected spending by $8.6 trillion, with 60% of spending curtailments coming from the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the rest from both military and domestic discretionary programs.
It needs to be strongly emphasized that under the Epstein plan spending would not actually decrease from one year to the next, but would rather grow at a slower rate, from $3.9 trillion in 2016 to $4.7 trillion in 2026.  His plan would decrease the public debt from 77% of GDP today to 58% in 2026.

Conclusion. The U.S. faces the very unpleasant problem of excessive debt which will just keep getting worse and worse without making some relatively unpleasant adjustments in the way that the federal government spends money. The sooner we get started in this process the better off we will be.

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We Need More Low-Skilled Immigrant Labor, Not Less

 

Our economy is chugging along at 2% annual growth of GDP, not spectacular but not awful either. The unemployment rate has dropped to 4.3%, and low-wage earners are beginning to see decent pay raises. Furthermore there are good indications that GDP growth may rise in the near future to at least 2.5%, see here and here.
As growth increases, unemployment continues to drop, and wages increase more quickly, severe labor shortages in certain job categories are likely to develop.  As the New York Times economics reporter, Eduardo Porter, points out, “The Danger from Low-Skilled Immigrants: Not Having Them.”


Consider:

  • Eight of the fifteen occupations expected to experience the fastest growth – personal care and home health aides, food preparation workers, janitors and the like – require no schooling at all.
  • Low-skilled immigration does not just knock less-educated Americans out of their jobs, it often leads to the creation of new jobs – at better wages.
  • The strawberry crop in California owes its existence to cheap immigrant pickers. They are sustaining better paid American workers in the strawberry patch to market chain who would have to find other employment if the U.S. imported the strawberries directly from Mexico.

  • The benefits of immigration come from occupational specialization. Immigrants concentrated in more manual jobs free up natives to specialize in more communication-intensive (English speaking) jobs.
  • The average American worker is more likely to lose than to gain from immigration restrictions. Halting immigration completely would reduce annual economic growth by .3%.
  • The Pew Research Center estimates that about 30,000 unauthorized immigrants work in Nebraska, 3.2% of Nebraska’s total labor force. They are heavily represented in a handful of industries, making up 18% of Nebraska’s construction workers, 9% of production workers, and 5% of farm laborers.  With an unemployment rate hovering around 3%, the Nebraska economy would be severely stressed without these immigrant workers.

Conclusion. Both in Nebraska and nationwide, the U.S. economy has a strong need for immigrant workers. An adequate guest worker visa program is badly needed to provide legal status to these workers who are so critical to the success of the U.S. economy.

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Time to Start Over on Healthcare Reform

 

The Affordable Care Act, established in 2010, greatly expanded access to healthcare in the U.S. However, in spite of its name, it has done nothing to control the rapidly increasing cost of healthcare which is the core of our debt problem.


The new Senate plan, struggling to gain enough support to pass, puts Medicaid on a budget but doesn’t even attempt to address wider aspects of the healthcare cost problem.
A wider approach is the best way to proceed and perhaps now it is the only way to succeed in getting something done. Mr. Peter Suderman, who writes for Reason magazine, proposes several principles for a new approach:

  • Work for broader coverage but not necessarily universal coverage. This allows focusing on other important features such as:
  • Unification, not fragmentation, is what should be emphasized. Medicare and Medicaid are paid for directly by the government. Employer provided coverage, subsidized through the tax code and costing $250 billion per year, is the biggest problem in the U.S. healthcare system. It incentivizes employers to provide ever more generous insurance while insulating individuals from the true cost of care. It discourages job switching and entrepreneurship. Medicare ends up paying out far more than individuals have paid in.
  • Health insurance coverage is not the same as healthcare. For non-catastrophic, non-emergency expenses, affordability should be emphasized, rather than subsidies. Health savings accounts are a good way to accomplish this.
  • Focus on government assistance for the poorest and sickest. This means upgrading Medicaid, and coverage for pre-existing conditions, at the same time as putting Medicaid, Medicare and employer provided care all on a fixed, but reasonable, budget.

Conclusion. The cost of American healthcare is a huge problem. Hopefully the Senate will begin to address this fundamental problem as it struggles to pass a healthcare reform bill.

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