I have no antagonism for Barack Obama. He was elected because of the unpopularity of the Iraq War and George Bush who started it. He inherited the Financial Crisis and pulled us out of it without another depression. He has put us on the road to universal healthcare even though the structure of the Affordable Care Act does little to control costs. But overall, the negatives of his presidency outweigh the positives. Consider the situation we are currently in:
Stagnant Economy. The annual rate of growth of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009 has been an anemic 2% compared to our historical growth rate of 3% since the end of WWII. Although the official unemployment rate is down to a respectable 5%, there are millions of unemployed and underemployed people who have stopped looking for work. Obama and the Democrats in Congress have little interest in the tax reform and deregulatory measures which would boost economic growth.
Massive Debt. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) has doubled to over $13 trillion on Obama’s watch. As the Federal Reserve begins to raise interest rates to ward off inflation, interest payments on this debt will increase enormously. It is absolutely imperative to begin to substantially shrink our annual budget deficits. The Democratic Party, under his leadership, has expressed no willingness to do this.
Chaotic Middle East. The rise of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and North Africa, and the resulting refugee crisis in Europe is the result of weak U.S. leadership in the Middle East. Peace and stability depends on a strong U.S. presence in all trouble spots around the world. We neglect this responsibility at our peril.
Hyper-partisan Political Atmosphere. Stalemate in addressing these and other serious problems has led to the rise of extremist presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Moderate candidates with successful experience in elected office are unable to gain political traction.
Our country is in a big mess. We are being guided by ideology rather than common sense. I am optimistic by nature. But it’s awfully easy to be pessimistic about our future.
As we celebrate the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Americans have much to be thankful for. It is often said that the United States is the strongest, wealthiest and freest country the world has ever known. Although this may be somewhat of an exaggeration (see below), it is still indicative of how fortunate we are compared to the rest of the world. As we celebrate our good fortune, we need to be acutely aware that our continued success as a great nation is not automatically assured. In fact we face a number of troubling and persistent problems which are not likely to disappear unless we take strong action to address them. For example we have:
A stagnant economy with only 2.2% annual growth since the end of the Great Recession. And the Congressional Budget Office predicts no speed up over at least the next ten years, based on current policy. Such slow growth condemns 20 million unemployed and underemployed citizens to unfulfilling lives, as well as lackluster pay raises for many more tens of millions.
Massive debt. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) is now at 74% of GDP, highest since the end of WWII, and predicted by the CBO to grow rapidly under current policies. When interest rates return to the normal 5% level, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket, making it much more difficult to fund all of the federal programs we depend on for our quality of life.
Increasing Income Inequality is real even if overhyped in the media. America is still a land of great opportunity but basic fairness demands that all citizens be able to share in our national abundance.
Threats from abroad. ISIS now controls much of Iraq, Syria and northern Africa and must be defeated. NATO needs our very strong support, all the more so with the Eurozone and European Common Market under increasing pressure from within.
As the strongest nation in the world we have much responsibility for continued world peace and prosperity. We can’t fulfill this role adequately unless our own internal fiscal and economic policies are in fundamentally sound shape.
Let’s be thankful for what we have and bear down hard to insure that we keep it!
There seems to be a general consensus on the reality of increasing income inequality in the U.S. and even some agreement on its two main causes: globalization and the rapid spread of technology. The slow growth of the economy since the end of the recession has made the inequality problem that much worse. Not surprisingly, slow economic growth in the past five years has led to stagnant wages for many workers. My last post addressed this problem. The above chart from the New York Times shows that incomes for top wage earners have been rising in recent years while they have been stagnant for middle- and lower-income workers.
But there is more to it than this. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Mark Warshawsky and Andrew Biggs point out that, “Income Inequality and Rising Health-Care Costs,” in the years 1999 – 2006, total pay and benefits for low income workers rose by 41% while wages rose by only 28%, barely outpacing inflation. For workers making $250,000 or more total compensation rose by a lesser 36% while wages grew by a greater 35%. This apparent anomaly is explained by the fact that health insurance costs are relatively flat across all income categories, thus comprising a much larger percentage of the total pay package of low-income workers than for high-income workers. In fact, the Kaiser Foundation has shown that low-wage workers tend to pay higher health insurance premiums, as well as receiving lower insurance benefits, than higher paid workers (see the above chart).
Overall, what this means is that employer provided healthcare is taking a huge chunk out of the earnings of low-income workers which makes income inequality much worse than it would be otherwise. Of course, the cost of healthcare is a huge burden for the entire U.S. economy, currently eating up 17.3% of GDP, twice as much as for any other developed country.
For both of these reasons it is an urgent matter for the U.S. to get healthcare costs under control. Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute has an excellent plan to do just this as I have discussed in several recent posts.
The Great Recession caused by the financial crisis ended in June 2009. In the intervening five years the U.S. economy has grown at the anemic annual rate of 2.2%. In an attempt to speed up growth the Fed has injected $4 trillion into the economy and kept short term interest rates near zero during this time period. Fed Chair Janet Yellen recently gave her semiannual report to Congress and, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s John Makin, “Fed Chair Yellen puts on a brave face.” She said that “If economy performance is disappointing, then the future path of interest rates likely would be more accommodative than currently anticipated.” Mr. Makin adds that “Eventually the realization will dawn that the only way to get the economy moving again is to work on the supply side. Specifically, that means undertaking measures to boost investment and produce a rising capital stock which will boost labor productivity, hiring, and GDP growth without inflation.” He suggests that three measures to boost capital spending are:
Enactment of accelerated depreciation provisions and investment tax credits.
A sharp reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35 to 15 percent to induce corporations to repatriate the $1.59 trillion in accumulated profits being held abroad.
A concerted White House-led effort to set a clear, less burdensome path for healthcare and other regulatory measures as a means to reduce investment dampening uncertainty.
I would add a fourth measure:
An across the board lowering of individual tax rates (offset by closing loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy) in order to boost personal consumption which has been highly depressed due to stagnant wage growth and high unemployment.
In other words there are clear and straightforward measures which our national leaders can take to speed up the economy. ‘If there is a will, there’s a way’ and incumbents should be held responsible for inaction come the elections in November!
Mortimer Zuckerman, writing a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal, “The Full-Time Scandal of Part-Time America,” points out that the latest employment figure of 288,000 net jobs created in June is highly misleading. “Full-time jobs last month plunged by 523,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What has increased are part-time jobs. They soared by about 800,000 to more than 28 million.” Mr. Zuckerman goes on to say, “Since 2007 the U.S. population has grown by 17.2 million, according to the Census Bureau, but we have 374,000 fewer jobs since a November 2007 peak and are 10 million jobs shy of where we should be.” Interestingly, the New York Times discusses the same problem from a different point of view, ”A Push to Give Steadier Shifts To Part-Timers”. The NYT does recognize that there are now about 7.5 million part-time workers who would prefer full time employment but are unable to find it. But the emphasis is on giving them more advance notice for changes in work schedules.
The only way that we’ll get what we really need, more jobs, more good jobs and more fulltime jobs, is by faster economic growth beyond the anemic 2.2 average growth rate since the recession ended five years ago. Here are several ways to accomplish this:
The most obvious and immediate thing we should do is to lower the corporate tax rate from its currently highest in the world level of 35%. This will stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. companies moving overseas and encourage multinational corporations to bring their profits home and reinvest them in the U.S.
Broad-based individual tax reform, with lower tax rates for all, offset by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. This will put more money in the hands of the two thirds of Americans who do not itemize their tax deductions. Since these are the middle and lower income wage earners with stagnant incomes, they will spend their extra income thereby giving the economy a big boost.
The employer mandate in Obamacare is responsible for some of the shift from fulltime to part-time employment, and should be repealed (it has already been suspended for two years by the Obama Administration).
These are just common sense reforms which should be doable by Congress without a huge ideological fight. We badly need leadership capable enough to do this!
Today’s New York Times has an article “U.S. Economic Recovery Looks Distant as Growth Stalls”, summarizing the predominant view of economic experts that annual growth of the U.S. economy in the future is now expected to be only 2.1%, about two-thirds of the historical rate of 3%. This is, of course, disappointing since it means continued stagnation of household incomes as well as high unemployment. Much of the projected decline in GDP growth is attributed to structural factors such as:
The number of Americans receiving disability benefits has increased significantly in recent years. Few of these people will ever return to work.
Fewer immigrants are arriving. There are now two million fewer people over the age of 16 than had been projected in 2007.
The birth rate has declined each year from 2007.
Government spending on public investment has fallen by 8% since the recession started. Corporate investment has been lackluster.
Fewer businesses are being created and existing businesses are spending less on research and development.
Rising income inequality results in “secular stagnation” whereby there is insufficient consumer spending to stimulate economic growth.
There are lots of head winds slowing down the economy. As the NYT article says, “for more than a century the pace of growth was reliably resilient, bouncing back after recessions like a car returning to its cruising speed after a roadblock.” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says that the government now expects annual growth to be permanently slower.
Should we resign ourselves to this pessimistic attitude or should we consider whether or not there is any practical and feasible alternative?
There is, in fact, an easy way to speed up growth. Broad-based tax reform would do it. By this I mean lowering tax rates across the board paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking the deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. This would place more income in the hands of the two-thirds of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions. These are typically middle and lower income folks with stagnant incomes. They would spend their tax savings, thereby giving the economy a big boost.
This would also amount to redistribution from the rich to the poor, making us a more equal society in the process. It’s a win-win for our economy and for social harmony. What’s holding us back?