Understanding Economic Growth

 

One of the major topics I discuss on this blog is:

  • Economic growth, in particular the fact that the U.S. economy has grown at the relatively slow rate of 2.1% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. It appears, however, that the economy may now be starting to pick up speed.

There are plenty of “experts” who say that it is unrealistic to expect economic growth to continue indefinitely at the same level (3% on average) which has prevailed since the end of WWII because:

  • Resources are limited. The earth is finite but it is also vast. It is unlikely that any mineral or even energy source such as fossil fuels will be depleted for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. If and when any particular resource becomes scarce, human ingenuity will be able to find a replacement.
  • Population growth is slowing down. It is likely that human population worldwide will level off this century somewhere between 9 and 10 billion. This is highly desirable but is unlikely to slow down economic growth. As income and education levels rise, productivity and GDP per person will also increase.
  • Growth tends to be debt financed which is unsustainable.  I agree with this reservation. This is the one problem, if not solved, which has the potential to derail continued steady progress.

The remarkable human progress of the last 200 years is likely to continue indefinitely.  In particular:

Conclusion. The world has enjoyed remarkable human progress in the last two hundred years, in the form of steady economic growth, and this progress is likely to continue indefinitely into the future.

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New Urgency in Deficit and Debt Control

 

The general theme of this blog is major fiscal and economic issues facing the U.S. such as slow economic growth and huge debt. But our currently low unemployment rate of 4.4% and several trends, here and here, suggest that economic growth may already be starting to pick up.
This means that our huge debt, now 77%, for the public part on which we pay interest, the highest it has been since right after WWII, is now one of the very biggest problems facing our country.
Consider:

  • The only practical way to “solve” our debt problem (so to speak) is for each year’s annual deficit to be less than economic growth for that year. When this happens, then the debt will decrease as a percentage of GDP. If this pattern were to hold year after year, then debt would continue to shrink. This is exactly what happened from 1946 until about 1980 but since then the pattern has reversed and the debt has increased. It has grown especially fast since the financial crisis in 2008 (see chart).
  • The Fiscal Year 2017 deficit is $700 billion out of a total GDP of $20 trillion, which computes to 3.5% of GDP, well above the 2% annual growth of GDP for the 2017 FY. This means that our debt got worse in 2017.
  • Congress has already approved $15 billion in disaster relief for Hurricane Harvey. Now the White House is asking for $29 billion more ($12.8 billion for new disaster relief, especially for Puerto Rico, and $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program).  Congress has also approved a big increase in the Defense Budget, to $700 billion, for the 2018 FY.
  • Congress will soon be approving a budget for 2018 and then start working on a tax reform package. Given the likely increases in both military spending and disaster relief described above, it is now even more important for the new budget to show overall spending restraint and for the tax reform package to be revenue neutral.

Conclusion. Let’s hope that Congress gets the message about the new urgency of our debt problem and acts accordingly!

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A Different Perspective on U.S. Healthcare Reform

 

U.S. healthcare policy is now in limbo. The Affordable Care Act has withstood Congressional attempts to repeal it, but it has many flaws which need to be repaired.  Primarily, the ACA expands access to healthcare in the U.S. (good) but does nothing to control burgeoning costs for both individuals and the federal budget (bad).


One option for both further expansion of access as well as cost control is Bernie Sanders’ single-payer “Medicare for All” plan.  A different option is universal catastrophic care for all Americans not already covered by Medicare or Medicaid (including those receiving employer provided health insurance).


A different perspective is provided by an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.  According to the authors, Eric Schneider and David Squires, the U.S. also faces (in addition to the challenge of much better cost control) several performance challenges such as:

  • Lack of access to affordable and comprehensive insurance coverage for too many people.
  • Relative underinvestment in primary care. Other developed countries have a higher percentage of their professional workforces dedicated to primary rather than specialty care and deliver a wider range of services at first contact.
  • Administrative inefficiency of the U.S. healthcare system. The solution here is to change our reimbursement systems to use global payments, fee schedules, formularies and defined benefits.
  • Disparities in the delivery of care. People with low incomes, low educational attainment, and other social and economic challenges face greater health risks and thus need even greater access to primary healthcare.

Conclusion. The U.S. compares poorly with other advanced countries in both the quality and cost efficiency of its healthcare system. Healthcare costs in the U.S, are a huge drain on the economy and will ultimately cause huge fiscal problems if not brought under much greater control.

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Why Our National Debt Is a Very Serious Problem for All Americans, but Especially the Poor

 

Congress has just postponed the debt ceiling until December 8 but at least they didn’t repeal it.  It is crucial to retain regular and explicit debt ceilings as a reminder of the urgency of putting our debt on a downward course (as a percentage of GDP).
As a reminder:

  • The debt now stands at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since right after WWII. The $15 trillion public debt right now is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal, and higher, historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket.
  • The entitlement programs of Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of our debt problem because their costs are increasing so rapidly. Medicaid costs the federal government almost $400 billion per year. Medicare costs the federal government $400 billion per year more than it receives in FICA taxes and premiums paid.

The attached chart demonstrates the scope and urgency of the problem.  By 2032, just fifteen years from now, all federal tax revenues will be required to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest payments on the debt. This means that all of ordinary discretionary spending: on defense, various government operations and social welfare programs will be paid for entirely from new deficit spending and, in the process, will almost inevitably suffer huge cutbacks.  The lower-income and poor people, who are the most reliant on government programs to get by, will be the most adversely affected.

Conclusion. Such a dreary scenario of drastically tightened government spending does not have to occur. It can be avoided by immediately starting to make sensible curtailments, not actual spending cuts, all along the line.  Do our national leaders have the common sense and fortitude to do this?

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Why Can’t Democrats and Republicans Work Together?

 

I am a non-ideological fiscal conservative and social moderate. I agree with Republicans on some issues and Democrats on others.  It seems to me that there is a lot of common ground between the two national parties and plenty of opportunity for working together.


For example:

  • The economy. Donald Trump was elected President with the support of blue-collar workers. He wants to help them out by speeding up economic growth.  But the Democrats also want to give a boost to the working class.  Why not lower the corporate tax rate to encourage multi-national companies to bring their profits back to the U.S.? Why not exempt small community banks from Dodd-Frank so they can lend more money to main street businesses?
  • Sustainable healthcare. After failing to repeal and replace the ACA, Republicans now have to accept that universal health insurance is here to stay even though it needs much better cost control. The popularity of employer provided health insurance makes single payer healthcare unacceptable to many. Two major changes are needed to lower healthcare costs.  The ACA Cadillac tax should be replaced by an upper limit on the tax exemption for employer provided insurance. The Medicare Part B premium covers only 25% of the cost of that program and should be increased on a means adjusted basis.
  • Immigration policy. With the unemployment rate now 4.4% and dropping, a huge labor shortage is beginning to develop which will retard economic growth. We now need more skilled and unskilled immigrants alike.  An expanded guest-worker program to meet the needs of employers should be created. Enhanced border security can be part of the mix.
  • Military spending. In a dangerous world we need a strong military defense. But there is a lot of waste in the Pentagon budget. Do we really need 800 foreign bases in over 70 different countries?  Nebraska’s own Chuck Hagel identified $25 billion a year in military waste while he was Secretary of Defense.

Conclusion. Here are just a few ways that the two parties can work together to address some of our biggest national problems. Faster economic growth and fiscal restraint just make common sense.

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Global Warming and Debt Are Both Creeping Catastrophes

 

Three devastating hurricanes have struck the U.S. in recent years: Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012) and now Harvey (2017). Hurricanes and tropical storms are natural events which have occurred since the distant past, long before global warming became a problem.
What has changed is that the oceans are now steadily getting warmer by absorbing much of the heat reflected back to earth by greenhouse gases (see chart).  Warmer water has more latent energy and this makes hurricanes more severe. The warmer the oceans become, the more devastating future hurricanes will be.


It is (past) time to get serious about global warming.  As the world’s strongest country, it is up to the U.S. to provide leadership on this very serious problem.  The best way we can respond is by adopting a (revenue neutral) carbon tax to discourage future carbon emissions as much as possible.  This problem is not going to disappear but it is within our power to limit the damage it causes before it gets a lot worse.
The exact same thing is true about our national debt.  At 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), it is the highest it has been since the end of WWII. Right now interest rates are so low that our debt is almost “free money.”  But interest rates will eventually return to more historically normal levels.  When this happens, interest payments on the debt will rise by hundreds of billions of dollars per year.  At that point a severe Fiscal Crisis will not be far behind.
Again, debt is a solvable problem if only our national leaders will take it seriously.  All it requires (so to speak, because it won’t be easy!) is to limit future federal spending in sensible ways.

Conclusion. Both global warming and national debt are serious, urgent problems. The sooner we get started on addressing them, the better off we will be.

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What Do I Mean When I Say I’m a Fiscal Conservative?

 

Americans are a very fortunate people. We are protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors to our north and south.  We are the strongest country in the world, both economically and militarily.  We provide the world with cutting edge leadership in many areas such as technology, finance, energy production, scientific research and university education.
In short we live in a very successful, prosperous and complex society.  We do have serious problems but they are being addressed by our elaborate legal and governmental processes and structures. Slowly but surely life in America is getting better and better all the time.
Given our country’s size, complexity and dominance in the world, it is inevitable that government will also grow in size and structure in order to take on new responsibilities. It is completely unrealistic to think that we can return to a more limited form of government that existed in the past.
When I say, then, that I’m a fiscal conservative, I am not advocating for less government but merely that we pay for the government that we have, in other words, act in a fiscally responsible manner.


And we are not doing this at the present time:

  • Our national debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is the highest since right after WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office that it will keep steadily getting worse without major changes in current policy.
  • The urgency of the debt problem is based on the fact that interest rates are now so low that it is almost “free” money. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket. Eventually this will lead to a Fiscal Crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
  • The solution to this problem need not be drastic. Federal spending is growing by 5% per year while tax revenues are growing by 3% per year. If we would just hold spending increases down to 2.5% per year, the federal budget would be balanced in a few years and our debt would start shrinking as a percentage of GDP.

Conclusion. Spending restraint, with very few actual spending cuts, is all that it will take to put our debt problem on a path to solution. Surely we are capable of acting in a fiscally responsible manner like this!

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