The Cato economist, Brink Lindsey, has just issued a new report, “Why Growth Is Getting Harder”. See also Robert Samuelson’s Op Ed in yesterday’s Omaha World Herald, “Economic growth potion slowing to anemic trickle”. Annual GDP growth has averaged over 3% since 1950. But for the past four years, since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, it has averaged barely 2% annually and, as Mr. Lindsey notes, this low growth rate is widely predicted to continue.
Historically the rate of GDP growth is attributed to four factors:
greater labor force participation, mainly by women
better educated workers, as reflected in high school and college graduation rates
more invested capital per worker
technological and organizational innovation
For example, women’s labor force participation went from 30.9% in 1950 to 59.9% in 2000. Since then it has started to lag. The national high school graduation rate is stuck at about 70% and realistically can’t go much higher. Mr. Lindsey shows that both the national savings rate and domestic investment rate have been falling steadily since 1950. Productivity growth was high from 1950 – 1979, high again from 1996 – 2004 and has fallen off again since.
Mr. Lindsey concludes “In the quest for new sources of growth to support the American economy’s flagging dynamism, policy reform now looms as the most promising “low-hanging fruit” available.”
What policy changes and improvements will counteract these negative trends? Here are several more or less obvious suggestions: Immigration reform can bring our 11,000,000 illegals into the main stream economy. Education reform, especially including an early childhood emphasis, will improve the quality of education for low-income kids, and maybe even boost graduation rates. Tax reform, with lower tax rates (offset by closing loopholes) has much potential for boosting investment and risk taking, as well as for boosting innovation and entrepreneurship.
Faster economic growth is so beneficial for so many reasons, that we should insist that our national leaders make it a top priority. Ideological objections, such as providing “tax breaks for the rich” are not acceptable and must be constantly batted down!
Several of my recent posts have been pretty gloomy. “Average is Over,” “What, Me Worry?” and “The Age of Oversupply,” for example. Here’s another gloomy one. The British economist, Stephen King, has an Op Ed column in last Monday’s New York Times, “When Wealth Disappears.”, based on his new book, “When the Money Runs Out.”
Our GDP grew at 3.4% per year in the 1980s and 1990s, then dropped to a growth rate of 2.4% from 2000 – 2007. Since the Great Recession ended it has averaged barely 2% per year. The Democrats say we just need more fiscal stimulus and monetary easing to boost the growth rate. The Republicans say deficit reduction including entitlement reform, slashing regulations and tax reform is what is needed to revive the economy.
“Both sides are wrong,” says Mr. King. “The underlying reason for the stagnation is that a half-century of one-off developments in the industrialized world will not be repeated.” These one-off developments are: the unleashing of global trade after World War II, financial innovation such as consumer credit, expansion of social safety nets which reduces the need for household savings, reduced discrimination which has flooded the labor market with women and, finally, the great increase in the number of educated citizens.
What Mr. King recommends is “economic honesty, to recognize that promises made during good times can no longer be easily kept. What this means is a higher retirement age, more immigration to increase the working age population, less borrowing from abroad (by holding down deficit spending), less reliance on monetary policy that creates unsustainable financial bubbles, a new social compact which doesn’t cannibalize the young to feed the boomers, and a further opening of world trade.”
“Policy makers simply pray for a strong recovery. They opt for the illusion because the reality is too bleak to bear. But as the current fiscal crisis demonstrates, facing the pain will not be easy. And the waking up from our collective illusions has just begun.”
It is obviously time to bite the bullet, lower our expectations, and start doing the hard work needed for even incremental economic progress.
Today’s New York Times has an interesting Op Ed column by Daniel Alpert, a partner at the investment bank, Westwood Capital, LLC, “The Rut We Can’t Get Out Of” . It is based on Mr. Alpert’s new book, “The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy”.
“Hundreds of millions of people who once lived in sleepy or sclerotic statist and socialist economies now compete directly or indirectly with workers in the United States, Europe and Japan, in a world bound by lightning-fast communications and transportation,” says Mr. Alpert.
During the “Great Moderation,” beginning in the early 1980’s, with the tech bubble of the 1990’s and the housing bubble of the 2000’s, we could ignore this threat from the developing world. But now, after the financial crisis and the Great Recession which followed, this huge new source of global competition for jobs and cheap goods is a drag on our recovery.
Mr. Alpert’s main prescription for recovery is to put the unemployed back to work “by any means, including big public sector investments to improve infrastructure and competitiveness.” He would do this with massive new deficit spending, arguing that U.S. debt is not a serious problem in the short term.
I agree with his argument that the global oversupply of workers, money and goods is a huge threat to future prosperity. Where I disagree is when he says that faster economic growth is more important than controlling deficit spending.
In my opinion, “America’s existential threat is fiscal” (Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane). In other words, as important as it is to boost the economy and create more jobs, and this is very important indeed, it is more urgent to get deficit spending under control and to do this quickly. We can actually accomplish both of these critical tasks simultaneously, as I discussed in my post of September 20, 2013.
In Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal John McWhorter, an African-American professor at Columbia University, describes “A Better Way to Honor Dr. King’s Dream”. Mr. McWhorter writes that a new conversation about race, “one in which whites submit to a lesson from blacks about so-called institutional racism” is not what America needs. “Today’s struggle should focus on three priorities. First, the war on drugs, a policy that unnecessarily tears apart black families and neighborhoods. Second, community colleges and vocational education, which are invaluable in helping black Americans get ahead. And third, the AIDS and obesity epidemics, which are ravaging black communities.”
Such sentiments represent a huge dose of common sense. The African-American community needs help and cooperation from the wider society to address fundamental issues like juvenile delinquency, poor educational outcomes and unhealthy environments. But these things, as much as they’re needed, are not enough by themselves for further progress towards racial equality.
The route out of poverty for all low income people, including blacks, is to raise themselves up by their bootstraps through educational attainment and hard work. Society can and should make sure that the appropriate institutions, such as community colleges, are readily available to provide training for jobs which are out there in the private sector.
But most of all we need a vibrant economy to give lower income Americans more opportunities to work their way up the economic ladder. We have not yet recovered in a satisfactory manner from the Great Recession which ended in June 2009. This makes it all the more important for our national leaders to focus on the pro-growth policies which will get our economy humming again.
Today’s Omaha World Herald reprints the article “Get-nothing-done Congress is disrespectful to democracy” by the Baltimore Sun writer, Andrew Yarrow. Mr. Yarrow says that “the 112th Congress, which ended in 2012, passed fewer bills than any Congress in recent memory, and the current 113th Congress is on track to do just as badly. … What Congress does do often seems patently ridiculous. … We need to … ramp up public pressure to get something done, rather than just fight.”
But is the problem just to do something, anything, or is it rather to do something worthwhile? And what if there is a fundamental disagreement, as there is today, about what is worthwhile? One party thinks that the way to boost the economy and speed up the recovery is to increase artificial stimulus (government spending) and to pay for it by raising taxes on the rich. The other party is appalled by the $6 trillion in deficit spending racked up so far by the current administration and wants to slam on the brakes. Each side is working as hard as it can to prevail, especially by discrediting and embarrassing the other side. How do you resolve a dispute like this?
There is really only one person who has the clout and visibility to get this done and that is the President. But when the President is the divider-in-chief, spending much of his time and effort proposing unsound economic and fiscal policies, intended primarily for short term political gain, what is the other party supposed to do? Acquiesce by passing new laws that will just make things worse? Or by standing firm on principle and hoping that the general public will be able to understand and appreciate its opposition to bad policies?
This is the situation which we are currently in. It makes for a difficult and unpleasant time. The economy is slowly recovering from the Great Recession on its own. Let’s hope that this trend continues and that we can muddle through our present political predicament.
An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times, “Republican No-Shows in the Budget Wars”, ridicules House Republican leadership for having the temerity to propose $4 billion in cuts from this year’s budgets for transportation and housing, and expecting Republican representatives to support such “draconian” cuts. “But the House’s skittishness at the decidedly unpopular costs of some of the party’s budget strictures presented a revealing tableau of both hypocrisy and weakness: Republicans could not pass their own cramped vision of the future.”
The underlying problem is that the House Budget for discretionary spending for 2014, at $967 billion, is almost $100 billion less than the Senate’s $1058 billion budget. The House insists on continuing the sequester cuts for the full ten years agreed upon when the sequester mechanism was set up two years ago. The Senate is ignoring the sequester agreement because it wants to replace it by a combination of milder cuts and tax increases. The Republicans would prefer to replace the across-the-board sequester cuts by a more rational budget cutting plan but the Democrats are unwilling to negotiate such a plan.
The Democratic Party, and its media supporters such as the New York Times, simply refuses to acknowledge that the United States has a fiscal problem. $6 trillion in deficit spending in the last five years apparently does not make a serious impression. The mantra is that we’ll worry about our enormous deficits, and exploding national debt, later, after the economy more fully recovers from the Great Recession. But after four years of recovery such an argument makes no sense. There are lots of effective ways to boost the economy but continued artificial stimulus (deficit spending) is not one of them.
Wake up, Keynesians! We need to turn things around and the sooner the better. Stop ridiculing the mostly Republican fiscal conservatives who are valiantly striving to accomplish this herculean task under the most trying circumstances.