More on Inequality: How Bad Is It and Why?

 

A recent article in Bloomberg View by Cass Sunstein, “How Did the 1 Percent Get Ahead So Fast?“, discusses the significance of new research by the economist Emmanuel Saez, ”Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States”.  Referring to Saez’s table and chart below, the conclusion is that income inequality has been getting steadily worse since the early 1980s and has been especially pronounced since June 2009 when the Great Recession ended.
Capture1Capture2In particular, 95% of all income gain in the last four years has gone to the top 1%.  This is a much greater disparity than during the so-called Clinton Expansion, from 1993 – 2000 (45% to the top 1%) or during the Bush Expansion, from 2002 – 2007 (65% to the top 1%).  According to Mr. Sunstein, “one point is clear: through 2012 the gains from the current recovery were concentrated among the top 1 percent, and that pattern, extreme though it is, fits with a general surge in economic inequality over the last 40 years.”
CaptureBut there is more to the story!  Looking at the final chart, just above, it is clear that the economy grew much faster during the Clinton Expansion than during the Bush Expansion, and, in turn, much more slowly during the Obama Recovery.  In other words, the way to reduce inequality is to speed up economic growth.  There are tried and true ways to speed up growth (e.g. tax reform with lower rates, emphasis on deregulation, boosting entrepreneurship, etc.).  It is unfortunate that too many in Congress, as well as the President have ideological blinders which prevent them from moving in this direction!

Where Are the Jobs? III. The Real Inequality Gap

 

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a story “Job Gap Widens in Uneven Recovery”, which shows how unbalanced the economic recovery is.  For workers aged 25 and older, unemployment is only 6%, compared to the overall unemployment rate of 7.3%.  But for the young, ages 16 – 24, unemployment is 15%.  Since the end of the recession in June 2009, wages have risen by 12% for the highest paid 25% of all workers.  For the lowest paid 25%, wages have only risen by 6% over this time period.
“Households earning $50,000 or more have become steadily more confident over the past year and a half.  Among lower income households, confidence has stagnated.  The gap in confidence between the two groups is near its widest ever.  That isn’t only bad for those being left behind.  It’s also hurting the broader recovery, because it means families are able to spend only on essential items.  Consumer spending rose just .1% in September 2013, after adjusting for inflation.”
Unfortunately, this data is entirely consistent with other gloomy economic trends which I have been reporting on recently such as the threat of technology to the middle class, the increased competition from globalization, and the shrinking size of the labor pool because of baby boomer retirements.
The New York Times has a running series of articles on “The Great Divide” and how to address it.   Here is a clear cut example of this divide: how older, better trained and more affluent Americans are recovering from the recent recession more quickly than the less well off.  This evident unfairness is damaging to the health of our society.  The question is how do we address it in an effective manner?
The basic problem is the overall slow growth of the economy, about 2% of GDP per year, since the recession ended in June 2009.  There are many things that policy makers can do to speed up this growth if they were only able to set aside ideological differences.  The best single action by far is tax reform, for both individuals and corporations, lowering overall rates in exchange for reducing deductions and loopholes which primarily benefit the wealthy.
Here is yet another reason why it is so important to speed up the growth of our economy.  How exasperating that our national leaders cannot figure out a way to come to together and get this done!

Where Are the Jobs? II. How to Create More of Them

My previous post, two days ago, introduced a new book by two economists, John Dearie and Courtney Geduldig, “Where the Jobs Are, Entrepreneurship and the Soul of the American Economy”.  They make a very strong case that net job creation comes primarily from businesses less than one year old, true “start-ups”.  But, unfortunately, there has been a huge drop off in the number of new businesses created each year since 2007 and, furthermore, the historical average of seven new jobs created by a firm in its first year has now fallen to less than five.
How do we reverse this alarming trend?  Here is what the authors have learned from the many entrepreneurs they have talked to:

  • “Not enough people with the skills we need”
  • “Our immigration policies are insane”
  • “Regulations are killing us”
  • “Tax payments can be the difference between survival and failure”
  • “There’s too much uncertainty and it’s Washington’s fault”

Although there are 24 million Americans either unemployed or underemployed, there are also 3 million advertised high skill job openings going begging and many more potential jobs available for qualified individuals.  A greater emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in the U.S. would help.  But also immigration reform is urgently needed.  The Senate has passed legislation to raise the annual cap on H1-B visas (for high skilled workers) from 65,000 currently to 110,000.  Hopefully the House will concur.
A Preferential Regulatory Framework for New Businesses could be devised to help fragile new businesses in their first five years.  A Regulatory Improvement Commission could be created to streamline the entire federal regulatory process.  Likewise a Preferential Tax Framework for New Business should be created and could, for example, recommend taxing income for the first five years at a much lower rate than normal.
Regarding policy uncertainty the authors refer to the U.S. Economic Policy Uncertainty Index which is at a very high level since the Great Recession.  Economic uncertainty obviously discourages business growth.
Conclusion:  A very good way to boost the economy and create more new jobs is to put greater emphasis on supporting entrepreneurs who are trying to start new businesses.  There are a number of concrete actions that the federal government can take to do this and doing so should be a very high priority for our national leaders.

Why Growth Is Getting Harder

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!

A Pessimistic View of America’s Future V. When Wealth Disappears

 

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.

A Pessimistic View of America’s Future IV. The Age of Oversupply

 

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.

What Is the Best Way to Advance Martin Luther King’s Dream?

 

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.