My last two posts, here and here, have dealt with the contention by Richard Reeves that the real inequality gap in the U.S. is not between the top 1% (the wealthy) and the bottom 99% but rather between the top 20% (the upper middle class) and the remaining 80%.
The top 20% are the highly educated doctors, lawyers, business managers, successful entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, etc. who thrive in the global economy, largely shielded from the intense market competition faced in the non-professional occupations. Basically the upper 20%, with incomes of $112,000 and up, have it made.
The question is then, how do we give a boost to the people in the middle- and lower-income brackets so that more of them can enjoy much of the same prosperity as the top 20%?
The answer is to:
Make the economy grow faster than the slow 2% annual GDP growth we have had since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. With sensible tax and regulatory reform, we should be able to achieve a growth rate of 2.5% per year. This will create more jobs and better paying jobs.
Improve educational opportunities by, for example, making early childhood education widely available to low-income families, attracting the best teachers to the poorest schools with targeted bonus pay, and funding college more fairly by requiring that all student debt repayment be income-based.
Fundamentally reform the American healthcare system in order to reduce healthcare costs from the current 18% of GDP to about 12% which is the average for other developed countries. This will save the American economy $1 trillion per year in unnecessary and extravagant costs, which could be put to much better use for higher worker pay, expanded social services and shrinking annual deficit spending.
Conclusion. The U.S. is a very prosperous country but clearly we can do an even better job to improve the quality of life for many more Americans.
For several years now Americans have been having a lively debate about income inequality and the supposedly shrinking middle class. The American Enterprise Institute scholar, Mark Perry, has an enlightening new post on this topic. The AEI has produced a vivid graphic showing that the American Middle Class (defined as the middle 50% of Americans by household income) has dramatically increased in income from 1971 through 2001 but has been stagnant since the Great Recession in 2008-2009. He has other charts showing that both the Low-Income group and the Middle-Income group have been shrinking since 1971 precisely because the High-Income group (defined to be households with $100,000 or more in income in constant 2014 dollars) has been growing so rapidly. Isn’t it obvious what we need to do to restore confidence to the Middle Class? Clearly we need to speed up economic growth. For example we could:
Implement broad-based tax reform. Lower the rates for both individual and corporate taxes, paid for by closing loopholes and limiting deductions. Better yet, shift from taxing income to taxing consumption.
Remove roadblocks to innovation by making it easier to start new businesses.
Improve K-12 education, especially for low-income kids who need extra help. Enhanced early childhood education, more emphasis on career (vocational) education, and charter schools in big cities are the way to get this done.
Make attending college more affordable. There are many good schools around the country which are not expensive to attend (the University of Nebraska at Omaha where I teach is one of them). College students and their families should make it a top priority to avoid huge debt. Attending a prestigious (and expensive) institution is simply not necessary to get a good education.
There are other more controversial ways to speed up economic growth such as increasing international trade and reforming our broken immigration system. But just the measures above will go a long way and shouldn’t be that difficult to implement.
Our economy has been stagnant since the end of the Great Recession five years ago. The median household income has not nearly returned to its pre-recession level. And now a new report has just appeared, “Room to Grow: conservative reforms for a limited government and a thriving middle class”, suggesting new approaches to address this major problem. The lead author, Peter Wehner, declares that “Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals. … Rather than speak about the economy in broad abstractions, conservatives need to explain how to put government on the side of people working to better their conditions.”
How can we raise median household income and put millions of unemployed people back to work, at the same time? Deficit spending is no longer a viable option because our national debt is way too high already. Quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve has been tried, hasn’t helped very much, and is now being unwound.
Consumer spending makes up 70% of GDP and so the most direct way to boost the economy is for people to spend more money. Can this be accomplished effectively and efficiently with government policy? The answer is yes!
Broad based tax reform is the way to do it. Lower tax rates across the board for everyone, paid for by closing the loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. Two thirds of the American people do not itemize deductions on their tax returns. This means that lower tax rates for all of these middle income people will put more money in their pockets, most of which they will spend, thereby massively boosting the economy.
Of course there will be pushback to this course of action from the millions of affluent Americans who benefit from all of the loopholes and deductions in our tax code. But our first priority by far is to help the many more millions of middle income Americans who are suffering from stagnant incomes at best or may still even be unemployed as a result of the recession.
According to Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center, the middle class consists of Americans “who do not consider themselves poor or rich, and can imagine their fortunes turning either way.” “We’ve moved towards an economy that more significantly favors skilled over unskilled labor. In addition, jobs, including even higher skilled jobs, are being outsourced to countries like China and India as the economy grows more globalized.”
“While President Obama has shown that he is able to effectively describe these trends, he has proved singularly unable to improve the economy in light of them. Indeed, a slew of economic indicators have worsened during his presidency.”
“Among the public there is a very deep sense of unease and apprehension. Ground that people once believed was stable is seen as crumbling, and many Americans seem unsure what to make of it. But one thing they do believe: right now politics is out of touch with what they’re experiencing. We’ve witnessed a collapse of trust in the federal government, and when it comes to Republicans and Democrats, the public’s attitude is: a pox on both your parties.”
“Most Americans have lost confidence in President Obama; they are deeply unhappy with both his policies and their consequences. …Yet Americans have not so much turned to the Republicans as they have turned against the Democrats.”
“Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals. … Rather than speak about the economy in broad abstractions, conservatives need to explain how to put government on the side of people working to better their conditions.”
I consider these excerpts from Mr. Wehner’s introductory essay in the document “Room to Grow: conservative reforms for a limited government and a thriving middle class” to be an excellent summary of the mood of the American Middle Class. Some of the accompanying policy prescriptions are good ideas and some are not. Stay tuned!
Most Americans agree that achieving better educational outcomes is one of the key ingredients to providing better opportunities for moving up the economic ladder. As one way to accomplish this, more and more attention is being given to early childhood education. The preeminent early childhood program in the U.S. is Head Start, which was begun in the 1960s as part of LBJ’s war on poverty. But a 2012 federal evaluation of Head Start showed that children who have participated in Head Start have been no more successful in elementary school than those who haven’t.
In today’s New York Times, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp addresses this problem, “The Benefits of Mixing Rich and Poor”. Mr. Kirp reminds us that only low-income children are eligible to participate in Head Start. He then goes on to describe several pre-K programs around the country which serve kids from both low-income and middle class families together. These programs achieve much better success for low-income kids without sacrificing the interests of the well-off kids. A similar phenomenon has been observed in the Learning Community of Omaha Nebraska. The LC is a six year old experiment created by the State to close the achievement gap between children from low income and middle class families. The Open Enrollment facet of the LC enables low income kids to receive free transportation to transfer to other schools within the 11 individual school districts which comprise the LC. The above chart shows that resident FRL (free and reduced price lunch) students in low poverty schools perform substantially better than resident FRL students in high poverty schools. In other words, low-income students benefit academically from associating with middle class students.
The question is how to design efficient public policy around this widely noted and common sense observation. It would be too expensive, in today’s tight budget climate, to provide universal pre-K education for all three and four year olds in the U.S. But the Rosemount Center, in Washington D.C., one of the pre-K programs described by Mr. Kirp., admits children from middle class families on a paying basis.
This could become an affordable and effective national model for providing pre-K education for rich and poor together!
My last post on January 23 shows vividly what the challenges are in restoring the American middle class to the prosperity which existed up until the Great Recession hit in late 2007. The problem, of course, is the gale strength force of globalization which is lifting up low wage workers all over the developing world and creating huge competition for the many low-skilled workers in the United States.
In today’s New York Times, the former Obama Administration car czar, Steven Rattner, writes about “The Myth of Industrial Rebound” in the United States, explaining why manufacturing jobs are coming back much more slowly than other jobs. “Manufacturing would benefit from the same reforms that would help the broader economy: restructuring of our loophole-ridden corporate tax code, new policies to bring in skilled immigrants, added spending on infrastructure and, yes, more trade agreements to encourage foreign direct investment.” The above chart shows the huge decline in manufacturing jobs relative to other parts of the economy such as the education and health sector as well as the professional and business sector. Of course, these more rapidly growing service sectors are the ones benefitting from the information technology revolution. In manufacturing, on the other hand, the low skill jobs are going overseas while the high skill jobs, using technology such as robots, are much fewer in number.
Conclusion: in order to increase manufacturing jobs in the U.S., we better government policies, as outlined above by Mr. Rattner. But we also need to recognize that there aren’t going to be as many high skilled manufacturing jobs in the future. We are going to need much better K-12 and post-secondary educational outcomes to prepare the middle class for the high skilled service jobs which will predominate in the future.
Many political commentators have been complaining recently about the financial difficulties of the American middle class. For example, a recent report from Bill Moyers and Company, “By the Numbers: The Incredibly Shrinking American Middle Class”, has a chart showing that the median middle class salary, adjusted for inflation, is now no better than it was in 1989 and not much higher than in 1979: But there is another point of view, very well described by the two economists, Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry, in the Wall Street Journal just about a year ago, “The Myth of a Stagnant Middle Class”. They make several pertinent points:
The Consumer Price Index overestimates inflation by underestimating the value of improvements in product quality and variety.
Wage figures ignore the rise over the past few decades in the portion of worker pay taken as (nontaxable) fringe benefits. Health benefits, pensions, paid leave, etc. now amount to almost 31% of total compensation according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The average hourly wage has been held down by the great increase of women and immigrants into the workforce over the past three decades. Because the economy was (before the Great Recession) so strong, it created millions of jobs for the influx of often lesser skilled workers into the workforce.
Messrs. Boudreaux and Perry point out several other improvements in the quality of life which Americans enjoy:
Life expectancy has increased to 79 years for an American born today, five years longer than in 1980. And the gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks has narrowed.
Spending by households on the basics of food, housing, utilities, etc. has shrunk from 53% of income in 1950, to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.
Although income inequality is rising when measured in dollars, it is falling when measured in terms of our ability to consume. For another example, air travel is now as common as was bus travel in an earlier era. And another: the latest electronic products are available to even middle class teenagers.
Conclusion: We should stop complaining about inequality and thank our lucky stars for the free enterprise system which has been so successful in improving our quality of life.
The George Mason University economist, Tyler Cowen, has written a provocative new book entitled “Average is Over”, which has just been reviewed by the Economist: “The American Dream, RIP?” . His thesis is that the slow recovery of middle class jobs following the Great Recession of 2008-2009 portends a new economy more and more devoid of middle class jobs and broad prosperity.
Mr. Tyler says that “An elite 10-15% of Americans will have the brains and self-discipline to master tomorrow’s technology and extract profit from it. They will enjoy great wealth and stimulating lives. Others will endure stagnant or even falling wages as employers measure their output with ‘oppressive precision’. Some will thrive as service providers to the rich….Young men will struggle in a labor market which rewards conscientiousness over muscle.” Some highly motivated individuals, born poor, will be able to move into the elite group with cheap online education. This creates overall a sense of “hyper-meritocracy” at the top which “will make it easier to ignore those left behind.”
What Mr. Cowen has done is to take the strong social and economic forces of globalization and technology, add to this mix emerging machine intelligence (Google is a prime example) and then to use his vivid imagination to conjure up an image of what life will be like in the not so distant future. America will still likely be the dominant country in the world but the historically strong middle class will shrink as the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
Is this pessimistic vision of America’s future inevitable? Is there anything we can do to at least slow down if not to reverse these trends?
Speeding up economic growth is our only chance to turn things around and mitigate this grim future. Better K-12 education (and therefore early child education as well) will help in the long run. In the short run, broad based tax reform, healthcare cost control, relaxing overly burdensome regulations, and immigration reform are the four things which will help the most. The same old basic stuff is what we need to do! Tyler Cowen’s story just makes the need for such changes more compelling and more urgent!
An article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Obama Says Income Gap Is Fraying U.S. Social Fabric”, quotes the President that “If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise. That’s not a future that we should accept.” He says that “I will seize any opportunity I can to work with Congress to strengthen the middle class, improve their prospects, improve their security.”
A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal, “The Inequality President”, shows with a chart that median household incomes have fallen from $54,218 in June 2009 as the recession ended to $51,500 in May 2013. As the WSJ says, “For four and a half years, Mr. Obama has focused his policies on reducing inequality rather than increasing growth. The predictable result has been more inequality and less growth. … The rich have done well in the last few years, thanks to a rising stock market, but the middle class and poor have not.”
There are many things that Congress and the President could do to boost the economy if they were willing to work together and compromise. Obamacare doesn’t need to be repealed, just modified by dropping the employer mandate which is a job killer. Broad based tax reform, with lower tax rates, paid for by eliminating tax preferences, would be a big boost to investment, risk taking and entrepreneurship. A reasonable compromise would be to use a part of the revenue raised from eliminating loopholes for deficit reduction.
But little progress will be made unless the President is willing to show leadership by rising above partisanship. There are all sorts of ways he could do this. One simple way would be to show that he understands the seriousness of the rapidly growing national debt by supporting some of the many thoughtful proposals for more government efficiency.
A large majority of people want our first African-American President to be successful. But right now he is not on track to achieve this.