A few days ago the Omaha World Herald ran a story, ”Manufacturers Want More Young People to Consider a Job on the Factory Floor”, pointing out that there are almost 100,000 manufacturing jobs in Nebraska paying an average salary of $55,000 per year, many of which are unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants. Says Dwayne Probyn, Executive Director of the Nebraska Advanced Manufacturing Coalition, “Science, technology, engineering and math, that’s what we need.”
This is in fact a nationwide problem. A few weeks ago the New York Times had an article, “Stubborn Skills Gap In America’s Work Force” reporting on a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assessing literacy, math skills and problem solving using information technology, for people aged 16 – 65, in the 22 advanced nations of the O.E.C.D.. Eduardo Porter reports that while the U.S. is about average in literacy skills, it lags way behind in both math and problem solving skills.
One question addressed by Mr. Porter is the much larger wage premium for highly skilled U.S. workers over unskilled workers, than in most other O.E.C.D. countries. Another question is “how can the U.S. remain such an innovative, comparatively agile economy if the supply of skilled workers is so poor?” The suggested answer is troubling. “The American economy rewards skill very well but the supply hasn’t responded.”
This situation is first of all an indictment of K-12 education in the U.S. which has a high school graduation rate of only 80% and also focuses too much on college preparation rather than career education. These two problems are likely interrelated and at least partially explain the skills gap.
Another factor is immigration. Right now the U.S. is still attracting more talented foreigners than other countries. But it is risky to our economy to depend on foreign talent which can stay home as well as choosing to go elsewhere. Immigration reform will help with this problem but improved K-12 education will help even more.
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!
Today’s Wall Street Journal has a column by Neil Shah, “Stagnant Wages Crimping Economic Growth”, pointing out that the average hourly pay for non-supervisory workers, adjusted for inflation, has declined to $8.77 last month from $8.86 in June 2009, when the recession ended. It has also been reported recently, e.g. in the New York Times, that U.S. medium household income, now at $52,100, has not nearly recovered from its prerecession peak of $55,500 and is even below its $54,500 level in June 2009, at the end of the recession.
Lower income for workers and households mean lower consumer spending. This is a major reason for our economy’s low annual growth rate of only 2% of GDP since the end of the recession. Of course, the high unemployment rate, currently 7.4%, as well as increasing global competition, contribute to downward pressure on wages. But there is another factor, directly under government control, which is a major contributor to stagnant and declining wages.
Washington Post columnist, Robert Samuelson, in a recent column reprinted in the Omaha World Herald, reported that, from 1999 to 2013, wages and salaries rose 50% (adjusted for inflation) while health insurance premiums increased 182%.
Most health insurance is provided and largely paid for by employers and is therefore an indirect form of compensation. The huge disparity between wage gains and health insurance premium increases in recent years means that wages are being held back by the rapidly increasing cost of health care. The U.S. spends 18% of GDP on healthcare, twice as much as any other country and this is clearly out of line.
The best single thing we can do to slow down healthcare inflation is to remove the tax exemption for employer provided healthcare (and offset it with lower overall tax rates). Employees would then pay taxes on their health insurance benefits as part of their pay. This would have the beneficial effect of making consumers far more conscious of the true cost of healthcare and therefore consumers a strong incentive to hold down these costs.
It is up to Congress to change this provision of the tax code. Let’s insist that they get this done!
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.