In today’s fractious political climate, it is at least widely recognized that skilled blue-collar workers are often suffering from stagnant income growth and/or job loss. Unfortunately, the political parties often disagree on how to address this major problem. There are several different perspectives from which to view the overall situation:
Slow economic growth, averaging only 2% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. From 1950 – 2000 the economy grew at over 3% per year and produced a prosperous American middle class. Now, with strong headwinds from globalization and constantly improving technology, we badly need faster overall economic growth to provide more and better paying middle class jobs.
Income inequality. There is increasing income inequality in the U.S. even though the top 25% or so are doing very well. But raising taxes on the wealthy could slow down economic growth by discouraging new investment. In addition, redistribution of tax revenue to lower income Americans will not give them much of a boost.
Income insecurity. This is a huge problem for the many blue-collar workers who are struggling to make ends meet. There are a number of specific government actions which could alleviate this enormous societal problem.
Economic justice. Poverty in the U.S. is widely distributed geographically, with almost as much in rural and small town areas as in big cities. This could provide an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together to address a very challenging problem.
Conclusion. Our country has very serious economic and fiscal problems which are not being addressed because of severe partisan infighting in Congress. But slow economic growth, income insecurity and poverty affect a wide variety of people with different political outlooks. It’s inexcusable to allow partisan bickering to get in the way of finding workable solutions.
One of the topics I discuss on this blog is income inequality (here,here, and here). An interesting article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Upper Middle Class Sees Big Gains, Research Finds,” is highly pertinent to the inequality issue. As can be seen in the above chart, the percentage of people in the middle class or above has greatly expanded between 1979 and 2014. Furthermore, the basic research on this issue,by Stephen Rose at the Urban Institute, shows very clearly (in the chart below) what is happening: the higher is a family income, the faster it is increasing. The best policy response to this phenomenon should be clear. Rather than trying to decrease inequality with higher taxes on the wealthy, we should be trying to boost the less wealthy into higher income classes. The way to accomplish this is to:
Grow the economy faster with broad-based tax reform (lower tax rates paid for by shrinking deductions), immigration (guest worker) reform, (fair) trade expansion, and regulation reform (to help more small businesses get started). This will create more jobs and better paying jobs.
Improve education with early childhood education (to get minorities off to a better start in school), boosting high school graduation rates above the current 80% average (with better career and vocational education) and making college more affordable by putting more resources into community colleges and scholarships for low-income students.
Combat social inequality. The fraction of children with a single parent is the best predictor of upward economic mobility. The lower-income class marriage rate has dropped from 84% in 1960 to 48% in 2010. Policy should therefore focus on removing the marriage penalty in all government programs.
The basic forces of globalization and growing technology use are driving this societal change. The best way to respond is to enable more people to benefit from these basic trends.
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was not part of the normal boom and bust cycle, but rather the collapse of the postwar economic expansion under the weight of four main factors: high debt levels, large global imbalances, excessive financialization and an unsound build-up of future entitlements.
The economy risks becoming trapped in a QE-forever cycle. A weak economy leads to expansionary fiscal measures and Quantitative Easing (QE). If the economy responds then interest rates will go up and lead to a debt crisis. If the economy does not respond, then there is pressure for additional stimuli.
The economist Robert Gordon predicts that the future U.S. growth rate, adjusted for six big headwinds (demographics, declining educational attainment, rising inequality, effects of globalization, environmental costs, and debt overhang) may only be .2%, well below the 2.1% growth rate of the past few years.
The GFC may signal the zenith of globalization. The U.S. could function successfully as a closed economy, with foreign trade making up only 15% of GDP. The European Union and China could also turn inward. The rise of autarky and nationalism is a dangerous cocktail.
Financialization drives inequality. QE and low interest rates encourages high-income households to increase investments and therefore boosts the stock market. The increasing cost of healthcare, higher education and childcare is a big burden on low-income households.
Financial repression is increasingly accompanied by political repression which engenders lack of trust which in turn drives political disengagement and social disorder.
Ouch, ouch, ouch! This is a very negative assessment of the U.S. economic and social scene today. But I report the views of Mr. Das because they are reality based and need to be dealt with.
For seven years following the end of the Great Recession in June 2009 our economy has been plodding along at an average growth rate of 2.1% per year, much more slowly than after a typical recession. Instead of talking about how to fix the mess we are in, most of the presidential candidates are proposing measures which will make things even worse. The economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane, writing in the Weekly Standard, take a novel approach. Rather than suggesting ways of speeding up economic growth, which may no longer be of interest to voters in primary elections, they list their “Top Five Ways to Destroy the U.S. Economy” which are to:
Restrict Trade. Free exchange is the cornerstone of a growing economy. Raising tariffs will restrict imports, cause inflation and harm American consumers. Killing the Trans Pacific Partnership, stopping the Keystone Pipeline, and curtailing legal immigration would just be a start.
Make Work Illegal. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour will do lasting harm to underprivileged teenagers who are denied a first job. In the U.S. today over 30% of jobs require a government license compared to only 5% in the 1950s. This creeping need for permission keeps untold millions out of the labor force.
Tax People More Unequally. Why should the tax code be riddled with exemptions, deductions and credits which primarily benefit the wealthy? Why do we insist on taxing corporations at 35% when all other advanced economies are competing to lower their corporate taxes? This simply drives jobs overseas.
Stop Innovation. Why does Washington continue to favor big banks and bail out old established industries? A generation ago 1 in 6 companies were startups: today 1 in 12 are.
Increase the Debt. Debt has more than doubled in the past decade, yet interest payments in 2015 were the same as in 2006, because rates are artificially low. How long can this last? A sure path to a slow growth future is this kind of fiscal profligacy. Just call it investment and hope that most people will ignore the problem.
As Mr. Hubbard and Mr. Kane conclude, “The good news about this policy agenda is that it requires no sacrifices. If Washington just stays on course we will reap the whirlwind.”
The economist Lawrence Lindsey has an Op Ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal analyzing Census Bureau data here, and here showing that income inequality rose more under Bill Clinton than under Ronald Reagan. It also has risen much more under Barack Obama than under George W. Bush. Here is the explanation for this:
Cheap money is a boon to those who have access to it.
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all presided over bubble economies fueled by easy monetary policy. But the effects of the Bush housing bubble were more evenly distributed than for the Clinton stock market bubble or the Obama credit bubble.
In 1968 government transfer payments totaled $53 billion or roughly 7% of personal income. By 2014, these had climbed to $2.5 trillion or 17% of personal income. Despite the redistribution of a sixth of all income, inequality is far higher today than in 1968.
Two earner households have become the backbone of the American middle class.
When families with children making between $20,000 and $50,000 attempt to have a second earner go back to work, the effective tax rate on the extra earnings, including lost government benefits, is between 50% and 80%. This “working class trap” is increasing income inequality and keeping the income of these households lower than they would otherwise be.
During the first six years of the Obama presidency, the number of two-earner households declined, while the number of single-earner households rose by 2.6 million and the number of no-earner households rose by 5 million. In other words, two-thirds of the increase in the number of households under Obama is accounted for by households with no one working. This is the reason the middle class has shrunk and that inequality is increasing.
A recent Brookings Institution study shows that boosting the top tax rate from 39.6% today to 50%, and redistributing the additional $95 billion in tax revenue to the bottom 20% of wage earners would reverse only 20% of the increase in income inequality under Obama.
As Mr. Lindsey concludes, “Attacking the rich and running against inequality may be a sensible political strategy. But in the end the programs to implement this strategy make the problem worse.”
My last post, “Why Economic Growth is Slowing Down,” reports on the work of the economist Robert Gordon in his book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth.” Mr. Gordon makes a persuasive argument that the U.S. experienced an unusually strong economic growth spurt from 1870 – 1970 and that we simply cannot expect future GDP growth to replicate such a sustained streak in the future. Furthermore, in addition to much slower productivity growth at the present time, we are also facing strong headwinds to growth such as rising inequality, poor educational outcomes, demographic challenges, a huge debt burden and social deterioration at the bottom of the income distribution.
All of this together represents a severe double whammy holding back future economic progress in the U.S. So what type of public policy response is called for? Here are what I consider to be Mr. Gordon’s best ideas for simultaneously boosting productivity and combating the headwinds:
Toward greater equality of outcomes. Increase the minimum wage (state by state in my opinion), expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to able bodied adults without dependents, reform sentencing to keep more non-violent law breakers out of prison (which makes them unemployable, and therefore poor marriage prospects, upon release).
Towards greater equality of opportunity. Provide greater access to preschool education for all children growing up in low-income families. Allow college debt to be repaid as a percentage of taxable income after graduation. Reduce regressive regulatory measures such as occupational licensing.
Reducing Demographic Headwinds. Focus immigration reform on raising the average skill level of the working age population. This would include both blue-collar skills and college degrees.
I consider these types of reform to be relatively uncontroversial and therefore more easily doable through the political process. Other policy changes capable of speeding up growth such as broad-based tax reform (lowering tax rates paid for by shrinking deductions), major regulatory reform such as making the Affordable Care Act more flexible and the Dodd/Frank Act less restrictive, and approving the Trans Pacific Partnership to expand trade are all political hot potatoes and therefore will much harder to accomplish.
In my last post I presented the argument that voters are often more reasonable than the populist leaders who are trying to appeal to them. They would rather hear something more optimistic than rage against a dangerous world. But there is a difference of opinion on how to reach these voters:
Leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton endorses the Buffett Rule which calls for millionaires to pay a minimum tax of 30% on their income. Says Clinton, “I want to go even further because Warren is right. I want to be the president for the struggling, for the striving and the successful.”
All of the Republican presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, have tax reform plans which will grow the economy but none of which are revenue neutral. In other words, they will all add to annual deficits and therefore make our debt problem much worse than it already is.
The nonpartisan Tax Foundation has issued a new report, “Options for Broadening the U.S. Tax Base,” which proposes capping itemized deductions at $25,000 per individual combined with
i) cutting the corporate tax rate to 27%
ii) cutting the top three ordinary income brackets by 5%, and
iii) implementing a top capital gains tax rate of 20%.
Such a plan would be revenue neutral and would lead to a long term GDP gain of 2.7%, a long term wage gain of 2.2% and a ten year dynamic revenue gain of $759 billion.
The Clinton plan would bring in up to $50 billion per year in new tax revenue but would do little to boost the economy. The Republican presidential tax plans are fiscally irresponsible. The Tax Foundation plan would boost the economy and reduce deficits rather than increase them. Other specific reforms would boost the economy even more.
In other words there are clear cut ways to create more jobs and raise wages. This is a message which should appeal to the angry and disaffected voters who are attracted to Donald Trump.