In my opinion both of the two main presidential candidates have overall poor economic plans. But at least several major Democratic figures such as Hillary Clinton, the NYT columnist Thomas Friedman, and the economist Larry Summers do understand the importance of economic growth.
In particular, says Mr. Summers, “What is unfortunate is that many (progressives), in their eagerness to focus on fairness, neglect the single most important determinant of almost every aspect of economic performance – the rate of growth of total income, as reflected in the gross domestic product.”
More growth means more employment. For each 1 point increase in adult male employment, the employment of young black men rises by 7%.
More growth reduces the need for desperation monetary policies that risk future financial stability.
If U.S. growth continues to have a 2% ceiling, it is doubtful if we will achieve any of our major national objectives. If we can boost growth to 3%, interest rates will normalize, middle-class wages will rise faster than inflation, debt burdens will continue to melt away and the power of the American example will be greatly enhanced.
The question is not whether business success is desirable. The question is how it can be achieved.
All of the above is very positive on the part of Mr. Summers. But then he adds, “What is needed is more demand for the product of business. This is the core of the case for policy approaches to raising public investment and increasing workers’ purchasing power.” In other words Mr. Summers is ignoring that:
Investment in new business structures, equipment and intellectual property has now fallen for three quarters in a row.
Conclusion. The way to achieve the faster rate of growth which Mr. Summers (and almost everyone else) wants is not more public investment but rather more private investment. The House Republicans have a plan to accomplish exactly this.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel responds too mildly in “Why It’s Wrong to Dismiss the Deficit” to Larry Summers’ view that we should not worry about the deficit. Mr. Summers says, “Let me be clear. I am not saying that fiscal discipline and economic growth are twin priorities. I am saying that our priority must be on increasing demand.” According to Mr. Wessel, here is the essence of Mr. Summers’ argument:
The deficit isn’t an immediate problem; growth is.
We’ve done enough (about the deficit) already.
The future is so uncertain that acting now is unwise.
Granted that the deficit for fiscal year 2013 is “only” $680 billion after four years in a row of deficits over a trillion dollars each and that interest rates are at an historically low level at the present time. The problem is that the public debt is now at the very high level of 73% of GDP and is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to continue climbing indefinitely. Interest on the debt was $415 billion for fiscal year 2013 which represents 2.5% of GDP of $16.8 trillion. With GDP growth increasing at about 2% per year since the end of the recession in June 2009, this means that interest on the debt is already slowing down the economy and it’s just going to keep getting worse as interest rates inevitably return to higher historical levels.
Growth is very definitely an immediate problem. But increased government spending is the wrong way to address it. The right way to address it is with broad based tax reform (lowering tax rates in return for closing loopholes) to stimulate investment and risk taking by businesses and entrepreneurs. Significant relaxing of the regulatory burden would also help, especially for the small businesses which are responsible for much of the growth of new jobs. So would immigration reform to boost the number of legal workers.
As uncertain as the future is, we can be quite sure that entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) will be going up fast in the very near future as more and more baby boomers retire and the ratio of workers to retirees continues to decline. It would be very risky indeed to assume that economic growth will increase fast enough to pay for increased entitlement spending.
Conclusion: large deficits are a very urgent and immediate problem which we ignore at our peril! Furthermore the best ways of boosting the economy don’t require increased government spending.