The economist Joseph Stiglitz has an Op Ed column in today’s New York Times, “In No One We Trust”, blaming the financial crisis on the banking industry. “In the years leading up to the crisis our traditional bankers changed drastically, aggressively branching out into other activities, including those historically associated with investment banking. Trust went out the window. … When 1 percent of the population takes home more than 22 percent of the country’s income – and 95 percent of the increase in income in the post-crisis recovery – some pretty basic things are at stake. … Reasonable people can look at this absurd distribution and be pretty certain that the game is rigged. … I suspect that there is only one way to really get trust back. We need to pass strong regulations, embodying norms of good behavior, and appoint bold regulators to enforce them.” Mr. Stiglitz is partially correct. Although the housing bubble, caused by poor government policy – loose money, subprime mortgages, and lax regulation – was the primary cause of the financial crisis, nevertheless, poorly regulated banking practices made the crisis much worse. But this is all being fixed with Dodd-Frank, a just recently implemented Volker Rule, and a soon coming wind-down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Mr. Stiglitz concludes, “Without trust, there can be no harmony, nor can there be a strong economy. Inequality is degrading our trust. For our own sake, and for the sake of future generations, it is time to start rebuilding it. But how do we reduce the inequality in order to restore the trust which is necessary for a strong economy? Mr. Stiglitz doesn’t say! What we need is faster economic growth in order to create more new jobs. The last four years have demonstrated that the Federal Reserve can’t accomplish this with quantitative easing. It needs to be done by private business and entrepreneurship. Tax reform and the easing of regulations on new businesses is what we need. It’s too bad that ideological blinders prevent so many people from understanding this basic truth!
The latest issue of the Economist shows quite dramatically in the article “Labour Pains” that labor’s share of national income is dropping. In the U.S. workers’ wages have historically been about 70% of GDP. In the early 1980s this figure started falling and is now 64%. Similar declines are occurring in many other countries.
This phenomenon is closely related to what others are observing as I have reported recently. Tyler Cowen’s new book “Average is Over” discusses the threat of technology to the middle class. Daniel Alpert in “The Age of Oversupply” talks about the increase of competition from various global forces. Stephen King’s “When the Money Runs Out” makes the case that “a half-century of one-off developments in the industrialized world will not be repeated.”
Historically the stability of the wage to GDP ratio “provides the link between productivity and prosperity. If workers always get the same slice of the economic pie, then an improvement in their average productivity – which boosts growth – should translate into higher average earnings. … A falling labour share implies that productivity gains no longer translate into broad rises in pay. Instead, an ever larger share of the benefits of growth accrues to the owners of capital.”
A shrinking share of a GDP which itself is slowing down is a double whammy. The only way to address the problem effectively is to deal with the root causes.
First of all, we need to boost overall economic growth by the proven methods of broad based tax reform, especially including much lower corporate tax rates, making regulations less onerous, carrying out immigration reform, and giving special attention to helping entrepreneurs create new businesses.
How can we, additionally, help low skilled and low waged workers move up the ladder? Long term the most worthwhile action is to change K-12 education by putting more emphasis on career education to produce more highly skilled workers. Short term, we should provide crash job training for the estimated three million current job openings in the U.S. which require skilled workers.
Economic inequality in the U.S. is becoming progressively worse all the time. There are fiscally sound ways to address this alarming problem and it is important that they be clearly and forcefully advocated.
The cover story in this week’s Barron’s, by Jonathan Laing, “The Snail Economy, Slowing to a Crawl”, makes a well-documented argument that “over the next 20 years, the U.S. economy is likely to grow only 2% a year. That’s down from 3% or better since World War II. Blame it on an aging population and sluggish productivity growth. Bad news for stocks and social harmony.”
Here’s an example of the argument he makes. “Mean incomes of minorities in the U.S. population have remained at about 60% of white incomes in recent decades. Unless that pattern changes, and minorities earn bigger incomes, that augers slower income growth for the overall population as the baby boomers, predominately white, retire over the next 20 years. …At the same time the minority population, particularly Hispanic, will expand. …If income relationships remain the same, U.S. median income growth will drop by an estimated 0.43% a year through 2020 and 0.52% a year over the succeeding decade.”
This demographic trend can be offset to some extent by boosting the ages at which Social Security benefits are received in order to lighten the burden on those who are working. Immigration policy could be reformed to attract more highly skilled (and therefore more highly paid as well) workers to further offset the growing number of retirees. “And most of all, the U.S. should engage in a crash educational program to close the gap in skills and income levels among different parts of the American population.”
In addition to the demographic challenge well described by Mr. Laing, there is the problem that growing economic efficiency (caused by advances in technology and ever more globalization) will continue to replace American workers by both machines and lower cost foreign workers.
It is imperative for us to set aside partisan ideology and dramatically confront all of these economic challenges to continued American supremacy on the world stage. First and foremost we need fundamental tax reform, significantly lowering tax rates for all productive aspects of our economy, especially for investors, risk takers, entrepreneurs and corporations. (Lower tax rates can be made revenue neutral by eliminating deductions and closing loopholes.) We should simplify and streamline regulatory processes, again, to give all possible support to the businesses which can make the economy grow faster.
Our status in the world and therefore the future of our country depend on our success in this urgent endeavor!