Several of my recent blog posts have addressed various issues relating to our slow growing economy. In particular I have proposed a simple way to speed up economic growth: namely, broad-based tax reform at both the individual and corporate levels. The idea is to lower tax rates across the board, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions. At the individual level this could have the effect of putting as much as $250 billion per year in the hands of the middle and lower income wage earners who will surely spend most of it, thereby giving the economy a big boost. The U.S. corporate tax rate is not internationally competitive.
In today’s New York Times the economics writer, Neil Irwin, has an article “Why Is the Economy Still Weak? Blame These Five Sectors.” The five sectors are, in order of magnitude of effect: housing, state and local governments, durable goods consumption, business equipment investment, and federal government. See the chart below. Let’s look in turn at each of these top five barriers to faster economic growth:
Housing. Not at all surprising with 24 million people either unemployed or underemployed. Young people especially cannot afford to buy their first home today.
State and Local Governments. These governmental units have to balance their budgets. When people have more money to spend, tax revenues will increase and so will public spending.
Durable Goods Consumption. These same 24 million people aren’t buying much new furniture or many new cars either. It makes complete sense.
Business Equipment Investment. Lower corporate tax rates will incentivize our multinational firms to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment.
Federal Government. Unfortunately nothing can be done about this category! Federal deficit spending is way too high as it is and must come down.
Conclusion: Using broad-based tax reform to put a large amount of money in the hands of middle and lower-income wage earners, and also reforming corporate taxes, will boost spending for four of the five main barriers to faster economic growth. Why don’t we do it?
The Department of Commerce has just reported basic economic data for the second quarter of 2014. As the chart below shows, the economy gradually lost steam from 2004 – 2008, sunk badly in 2008 and 2009, and has now grown at a slow but steady rate of about 2% during the period 2010 – 2014. One of my favorite journalists, the New York Times’ economics reporter Eduardo Porter, has just written again on the topic of inequality, “Income Inequality and the Ills behind It.” He quotes the economist Tyler Cowen as saying “The right moral question is ‘are poor people rising to a higher standard of living?’ Inequality itself is the wrong thing to look at. The real problem is slow growth.” The economist Gregory Mankiw is quoted as saying that “Policies which address the symptom (of inequality) rather than the cause include higher taxes and a more generous safety net. The magnitude of what we can plausibly do with these policy tools is small compared to the size of the growing income gap.”
What Mr. Cowen and Mr. Mankiw are both suggesting is that we can’t effectively attack income inequality without also increasing economic growth. I believe that it is possible to address both problems at the same time by implementing broad-based tax reform as follows:
Individual income tax rates should be lowered across the board, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, in a revenue neutral way.
The 64% of all taxpayers who do not itemize deductions will get a significant tax cut. Since they are largely the middle and lower-income wage earners with stagnant incomes, they will tend to spend their tax savings, thereby giving the economy a big boost.
At the same time the 36% of taxpayers who do itemize their deductions will, on average, see their income taxes go up. But these are, on the whole, the wealthier wage earners who can afford to pay higher taxes.
A plan such as this represents a shift of net after-tax income from more wealthy people to the less wealthy. It therefore reduces income inequality.
If we can cut tax rates, increase economic growth and reduce income inequality all at once, why can’t our national leaders come together and act along these lines?