As I frequently remind my readers I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I usually write about particular economic and fiscal problems facing our country. But every now and then I like to step back and view our overall situation at one time. The last time I did this was here.
Let’s take another look:
The economy is puttering along at 2% annual growth with a relatively low unemployment rate of 4.3% and a good indication that faster growth, up to 2.5% annually, is right around the corner, see here and here. The economy, at least, is headed in the right direction.
Foreign policy. Long term our biggest problem is China, which has four times as many people as we do and is growing economically three times as fast. China will soon surpass us in both economic and military strength. Our best insurance for this inevitable day is to have lots of democratic friends around the world.
Global warming is real and getting worse. Our best strategy for dealing with it is a revenue neutral carbon tax, rather than depending on ad hoc regulations like the Clean Power Plan and ever increasing auto emission standards. If the U.S. demonstrates its seriousness with a carbon tax, it is likely that the U.S. and China (which is highly polluted) could work together to establish world-wide carbon emission standards.
National debt, currently 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is predicted by the CBO to keep getting steadily worse (see chart) without major changes in current policy. Right now our approximately $14.3 trillion public debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. But sooner or later interest rates will return to more normal levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will rise by hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This will inevitably lead to a severe fiscal crisis, far worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
Conclusion. I am relatively optimistic that we can maintain good relations with China and will have the good sense to better control carbon emissions. But our debt problem is politically very difficult to address because it will require spending curtailments. How do we successfully address such a huge problem?
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.”
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.
The current economic expansion, beginning in June 2009, is now one of the longest in recent years. Furthermore, low-wage workers are beginning to see bigger gains in pay. Since the rate of inflation is still remarkably low, under 2% annually, the expansion may well continue for some time.
The primary negative factor is the relatively slow rate of growth averaging just 2% since June 2009. But two economists, Michael Mandel and Bret Swanson, have just issued a remarkable report, “The Coming Productivity Boom,” on behalf of the Technology CEO Council, predicting that the diffusion of information technology into physical industries is likely to boost economic growth to 2.7% over the coming 15 years.
The next waves of the information revolution – interconnecting the physical world and infusing it with intelligence – are beginning to emerge. Increased use of mobile technologies, cloud services, artificial intelligence, big data, inexpensive and ubiquitous sensors, computer vision, virtual reality, robotics, 3D additive manufacturing and 5G wireless technology are on the verge of transforming the traditional physical industries – healthcare, transportation, energy, education, manufacturing, agriculture, retail and urban travel services.
At 2.7%, productivity growth in the digital industries over the past 15 years has been strong, compared with only an anemic .7% annual growth in productivity in the physical industries.
The digital industries, which account for 25% of U.S. private sector employment and 30% of private sector GDP, make 70% of all private sector investments in information technology.
This “information gap” means that the physical economy is operating well below its potential, dragging down growth and capping living standards.
The coming transformation could boost annual economic growth by .7% over the next 15 years. This would add $2.7 trillion to annual economic output by 2031.
Policy changes will be needed to achieve maximum growth. Better tax policy can encourage more domestic investment. Regulators will have to embrace innovation and technological change.
Conclusion. “The information age is not over. It has barely begun. … But launching this new productivity boom demands a new, pro-innovation focus of public policy.” In turn it will lead to an increase of wages and salaries to workers of $8.6 trillion over the next 15 years.
Experts across the political spectrum agree that the U.S. tax code is a huge mess and needs to be reformed as well as simplified. It is also generally accepted that lower tax rates will lead to faster economic growth.
As Congress turns its attention to tax reform, Senate Democrats have stated the basic principles which they would like to see included in any changes which are made:
Increase the wages of working families. This could be accomplished by lowering tax rates for all individuals across the board, paid for by eliminating (or at least shrinking) many of the personal deductions in the tax code. The approximately two thirds of all taxpayers who do not itemize deductions would then receive a tax cut, equivalent to a wage increase.
Promote domestic investment and improve middle class job growth. Lower tax rates will give businesses and entrepreneurs a bigger incentive to invest in business expansion and therefore grow the economy faster and create more new jobs.
Modernize our outdated business and international tax system. Our corporate tax rate at 35% is the highest in the developed world and, at the same time, produces below average revenue (see chart). Another reform would be to adopt business expensing (immediate tax write-off for new investment). Again, all such changes should be paid for by eliminating loopholes and shrinking deductions.
Any rewrite of the tax code must be deficit neutral. As important and valuable as tax reform is, it has to take into account our country’s most fundamental problem: our huge and rapidly growing national debt and therefore end up being deficit neutral overall.
Conclusion. The above principles, stated by the Senate Democrats, represent a sound approach to reforming the U.S. tax system. I hope that the Republicans are willing to recognize the validity of these proposals and include the Democrats in developing a bipartisan tax reform plan.
On Monday the Democratic Congressional leadership held a rally in rural Berryville, Virginia. They laid out a program designed to appeal to the middle class and blue-collar workers who voted for Donald Trump. However many of their proposals involve expensive government programs and therefore would add significantly to the national debt.
What is needed is a greater emphasis on free-market ways of helping middle- and low-income workers such as:
Increasing basic economic growth which has stalled to a relatively slow 2% per year of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. For example:
Revenue neutral tax reform, lowering rates for both individuals and corporations, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, would have many benefits. It would stimulate business investment, create new demand by lowering the taxes paid by the approximately 2/3 of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions, and provide an incentive for multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back to the U.S. for reinvestment.
Targeted deregulation of the financial sector by exempting main street banks from the onerous requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act would enable these smaller banks to lend more money to small businesses.
Fundamental healthcare reform to lower costs from the current 18% of GDP to the approximate 12% average of other developed countries. This would save the American economy $1 trillion annually which could be spent far more productively. The Democrats are on the right track here by refusing to accept Republican half measures.
Improve educational opportunities such as early childhood education for low-income families, expanded career education and job training in high school and community colleges, and more emphasis on income-based repayment for student college debt. There would be some cost involved here.
Modest increase in the national minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 per hour to perhaps $10 per hour and then index it to inflation going forward. The Democratic proposal for a national $15 per hour minimum wage would put too many people out of work.
Conclusion. This collection of proposals involves both Democratic and Republican ideas and should be implementable with a bipartisan effort.
The Democratic Party is starting to wake up. Donald Trump was elected President because he was able to appeal to blue-collar workers who feel left behind in today’s high tech global economy.
Yesterday the Democratic Congressional leadership held a rally in rural Berryville, Virginia to lay out an economic program to try to appeal to these very same Trump voters.
Increase people’s pay by lifting the national minimum wage to $15 per hour and also creating jobs with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
Reduce their everyday expenses by providing paid family and sick leave as well as breaking up large monopolies which can raise prices without restraint. Also empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices for older Americans.
Provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st century economy by giving employers, especially small businesses, a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs.
Unfortunately, there are problems with most of these ideas. In Seattle even a $13 per hour minimum wage has significantly reduced minimum wage work. The national minimum wage should be raised but to a more modest level.
There is no demonstrated need for a large-scale publicly funded infrastructure program and it would add hugely to the national debt.
A jobs program to maintain the employment rate for prime-age workers without a bachelor’s degree at the 2000 level of 79% and at a living wage of $15 per hour plus benefits would cost $158 billion per year.
Conclusion. Yes, blue-collar workers are hurting. Yes, some of the ideas suggested above would help them get ahead. But many would also increase already large deficit spending and therefore add dramatically to the national debt. What is needed is a combination of free market initiatives and carefully targeted government programs. Stay tuned!
The economy has been chugging along at about 2% annual GDP growth ever since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Unemployment has been steadily dropping and is now a fairly low 4.4%. Low wage earners are now even beginning to see bigger gains in pay.
Most people would like to speed up economic growth even more. Tax reform will help in this regard but so will sensible deregulation. Barron’s has an excellent article this week about deregulating Wall Street by William D. Cohan.
According to Mr. Cohan:
GDP growth is highly correlated with bank lending.
The Dodd-Frank Act, passed by Congress in 2010, has disproportionately burdened community banks, despite their having no role in the financial crisis.
More than 1700 U.S. banks have disappeared since Dodd-Frank was passed.
Senator John Kennedy (R, LA) has introduced a bill which would exempt community banks and credit unions with assets of less than $10 billion from the Dodd-Frank Act.
As a result of Dodd-Frank, big banks are now required to have more capital and less leverage. Today a bank’s assets would have to fall about 7% before a bank’s capital would be wiped out, as opposed to only 2% in 2008. This makes them safer.
Prior to 1970 the Wall Street partnership structure ensured that bankers had plenty of skin in the game – essentially their full net worth was on the line every day.
Today bankers and traders are rewarded for taking risks with other people’s money. Mr. Cohan recommends that the top 500 traders and executives at every big bank have a significant portion of their net worth on the line.
Conclusion. Mr. Cohan’s program would not only give a big boost to the economy by enabling community banks to lend more freely but would also make our financial system safer by requiring top financiers to have skin in the game.