Donald Trump and American Progress

 

I am a non-ideological (registered independent) fiscal conservative and social moderate. I was not very excited about either presidential candidate last fall but finally decided to vote for Clinton because of Trump’s sleaziness.
As it turned out Mr.Trump was elected because of his strong support from the white working class, especially in the upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.  Interestingly, the Democrats are responding by proposing legislation to try to appeal more strongly to blue-collar workers.
Of course I disapprove of Donald Trump’s poor handling of the Charlottesville tragedy but I try to avoid being distracted by all of the drama and rather stay focused on his policies and actions.  In this respect there are both plusses and minuses.


On the positive side:

  • North Korea. He is handling this crisis well simply by working through the UN to condemn North Korea’s provocative testing of ballistic missiles. Also his Administration has clearly stated that the goal of U.S. policy is to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, not to achieve regime change in North Korea.
  • The economy is still chugging along at 2% annual growth. On the deregulation front, the annualized pace of new regulations for 2017 is 61,000 pages, down from 97,000 in 2016. This is the lowest level since the 1970s and has the potential to speed up growth.

On the negative side:

  • NAFTA renegotiation is just getting started. Any shrinkage of U.S. exports will badly hurt the economy, especially in states like Nebraska which depend so much on agricultural exports.
  • Immigration. Mr. Trump proposes to dramatically decrease annual legal immigration quotas, especially for low-skilled workers. This is a very poor idea  which will hurt the economy, especially in states like Nebraska which have low unemployment rates.

Conclusion. President Trump’s record at this point is mixed, all the more so since the two very important issues of the 2018 budget and tax reform have yet to be resolved in Congress. Mr. Trump’s election may or may not be good for progress in America.  We simply don’t know yet.

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How to Achieve Sensible Tax Reform

 

Experts across the political spectrum agree that the U.S. tax code is a huge mess and needs to be reformed as well as simplified.  It is also generally accepted that lower tax rates will lead to faster economic growth.
As Congress turns its attention to tax reform, Senate Democrats have stated the basic principles which they would like to see included in any changes which are made:

  • Increase the wages of working families. This could be accomplished by lowering tax rates for all individuals across the board, paid for by eliminating (or at least shrinking) many of the personal deductions in the tax code. The approximately two thirds of all taxpayers who do not itemize deductions would then receive a tax cut, equivalent to a wage increase.
  • Promote domestic investment and improve middle class job growth. Lower tax rates will give businesses and entrepreneurs a bigger incentive to invest in business expansion and therefore grow the economy faster and create more new jobs.

  • Modernize our outdated business and international tax system. Our corporate tax rate at 35% is the highest in the developed world and, at the same time, produces below average revenue (see chart). Another reform would be to adopt business expensing (immediate tax write-off for new investment). Again, all such changes should be paid for by eliminating loopholes and shrinking deductions.
  • Any rewrite of the tax code must be deficit neutral. As important and valuable as tax reform is, it has to take into account our country’s most fundamental problem: our huge and rapidly growing national debt and therefore end up being deficit neutral overall.

Conclusion. The above principles, stated by the Senate Democrats, represent a sound approach to reforming the U.S. tax system. I hope that the Republicans are willing to recognize the validity of these proposals and include the Democrats in developing a bipartisan tax reform plan.

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The Democrats and the Economy II. A Path Forward

 

On Monday the Democratic Congressional leadership held a rally in rural Berryville, Virginia. They laid out a program designed to appeal to the middle class and blue-collar workers who voted for Donald Trump.  However many of their proposals involve expensive government programs and therefore would add significantly to the national debt.


What is needed is a greater emphasis on free-market ways of helping middle- and low-income workers such as:

  • Increasing basic economic growth which has stalled to a relatively slow 2% per year of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. For example:
  • Revenue neutral tax reform, lowering rates for both individuals and corporations, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, would have many benefits. It would stimulate business investment, create new demand by lowering the taxes paid by the approximately 2/3 of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions, and provide an incentive for multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back to the U.S. for reinvestment.
  • Targeted deregulation of the financial sector by exempting main street banks from the onerous requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act would enable these smaller banks to lend more money to small businesses.
  • Fundamental healthcare reform to lower costs from the current 18% of GDP to the approximate 12% average of other developed countries. This would save the American economy $1 trillion annually which could be spent far more productively. The Democrats are on the right track here by refusing to accept Republican half measures.
  • Improve educational opportunities such as early childhood education for low-income families, expanded career education and job training in high school and community colleges, and more emphasis on income-based repayment for student college debt. There would be some cost involved here.
  • Modest increase in the national minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 per hour to perhaps $10 per hour and then index it to inflation going forward. The Democratic proposal for a national $15 per hour minimum wage would put too many people out of work.

Conclusion. This collection of proposals involves both Democratic and Republican ideas and should be implementable with a bipartisan effort.

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The Right Way to Deregulate Wall Street

 

The economy has been chugging along at about 2% annual GDP growth ever since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Unemployment has been steadily dropping and is now a fairly low 4.4%.  Low wage earners are now even beginning to see bigger gains in pay.
Most people would like to speed up economic growth even more.  Tax reform will help in this regard but so will sensible deregulation.  Barron’s has an excellent article this week about deregulating Wall Street by William D. Cohan.


According to Mr. Cohan:

  • GDP growth is highly correlated with bank lending.
  • The Dodd-Frank Act, passed by Congress in 2010, has disproportionately burdened community banks, despite their having no role in the financial crisis.
  • More than 1700 U.S. banks have disappeared since Dodd-Frank was passed.
  • Senator John Kennedy (R, LA) has introduced a bill which would exempt community banks and credit unions with assets of less than $10 billion from the Dodd-Frank Act.
  • As a result of Dodd-Frank, big banks are now required to have more capital and less leverage. Today a bank’s assets would have to fall about 7% before a bank’s capital would be wiped out, as opposed to only 2% in 2008.  This makes them safer.
  • Prior to 1970 the Wall Street partnership structure ensured that bankers had plenty of skin in the game – essentially their full net worth was on the line every day.
  • Today bankers and traders are rewarded for taking risks with other people’s money. Mr. Cohan recommends that the top 500 traders and executives at every big bank have a significant portion of their net worth on the line.

Conclusion. Mr. Cohan’s program would not only give a big boost to the economy by enabling community banks to lend more freely but would also make our financial system safer by requiring top financiers to have skin in the game.

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How to Achieve a Balanced U.S. Budget

 

President Trump’s proposed 2018 Budget lays out a plan to achieve a balanced budget over a ten year period. I strongly endorse this goal whether or not the Trump budget is a realistic way to get this done.
The virtue of the Trump budget is to tackle waste and inefficiency across many different domestic programs (see chart below).


Its main defect is that neither healthcare reform nor tax reform has yet been implemented and the cost and/or savings of these two major initiatives are not yet known.
In the meantime the only way to think about balancing the budget is conceptually in terms of how it might be done.  Barron’s economic analyst Gene Epstein has done this recently.


Mr. Epstein proposes:

  • $8.6 trillion worth of spending cuts over ten years, of which 40% would come from programs other than Social Security and healthcare. By achieving a balanced budget in ten years it would lower our public debt (on which we pay interest) from 77% today to 58% in 2027.
  • By raising the age limit for full SS benefits to 67 (already enacted) at a faster pace, and indexing initial benefits to price inflation rather than wage inflation, $200 billion can be saved over ten years. Another $300 billion can be saved by phasing in a 25% reduction in SSDI benefits.
  • Cutting the estimated improper payment rate for Medicare of 12.1% in half would save $400 billion over ten years. Raising the premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D to 35% of costs from the current 25% of costs would save $400 billion.
  • Another $600 billion would be saved by turning Medicaid into a block grant program to the states and giving the states much more flexibility in how it is spent.
  • $950 billion could be cut from the military budget by cutting back on overly expensive new weapon systems as well as closing unnecessary military bases, both foreign and domestic.
  • Many cuts in government subsidies to individuals and businesses would save $1 trillion. Grants in aid to sates could be cut by $500 billion.

Conclusion. There are many different ways to curtail federal spending. It has to be done and the sooner we get started the less painful it will be for all concerned.

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Is Trump Serious about Shrinking the Debt?

The newly released Trump budget for Fiscal Year 2018 claims that it will lead to a balanced budget in ten years.  This is a highly desirable goal.  However the projected $4.5 trillion in spending cutbacks for many popular programs, as well as the projected 3% GDP growth for the next ten years, are both unrealistically optimistic.  Nevertheless, at least the Trump Administration is moving in the right direction.


Here is a good summary by Donald Marron in National Affairs of why it is so important to keep deficits and debt under control:

  • Prolonged deficits and mounting debt will undermine economic growth by interfering with investment in the private sector.
  • Prolonged deficits risk fueling inflation as the government lowers the value of the dollar by printing more of them.
  • High levels of debt held by foreign lenders put us at the mercy of foreign countries.
  • The growing debt exposes America to greater “rollover” risk with the increasing reliance on short term debt which frequently has to be rolled over.
  • Rising debt limits flexibility for increased spending in times of recession or other emergency. For example, when the Financial Crisis occurred in 2008, the debt level was just half of its current level. This meant the government could risk higher deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy.
  • Deficits have an unfortunate tendency to feed on themselves. Our current deficit level of approximately $500 billion per year is so large that it can only be significantly reduced with great pain. The only possible way to make deficit reduction politically feasible is to spread this pain widely amongst the public as shared sacrifice. This will be very hard to do.
  • Deficits and debt are grossly unfair to future generations who are stuck with servicing the debt and/or struggling to pay it down.

Conclusion. The Trump Administration recognizes the strong need to get deficits and debt under control. Unfortunately its current budget just submitted is not a realistic plan to get this done.

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How Fast Can the Economy Realistically Be Expected to Grow?

 

Both President Trump and the Republican Congress want the economy to grow faster than the slow 2% growth which we have experienced since the Great Recession ended in June 2009. The Congressional Budget Office predicts (see chart below) that growth will average just 1.8% over the next ten years under current policy.


The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, using CBO data, believes that several policy changes can help boost growth on an annual basis as follows:

  • Immigration reform, .3%, by increasing the number of workers.
  • Tax reform, .18%, if well designed. However, deficit-financed tax reform would ultimately harm growth.
  • Increase the Social Security retirement age by two years, .15%, by keeping people in the workforce longer.
  • Reduce deficits by $4 trillion over ten years, .1%. This is enough deficit reduction to put our debt on a sustainable, downward path.
  • Continue expanding energy production at the shale boom level, .09%.
  • Repeal of the Affordable Care Act, .08%, will keep more people in the workforce.
  • Ratifying the Trans Pacific Partnership, .01%, by increasing foreign trade.
  • Increasing public investment in infrastructure, education and research by $40 billion per year, .1%.

Note that all of these changes would increase growth by an estimated .83% of GDP per year. Added to the 1.8% base this yields a growth rate of 2.63%. Unfortunately, many of these reforms are unlikely to occur.  On the other hand, various deregulatory actions being taken by the Trump administration are likely to increase growth by an unknown amount.

Conclusion. It is reasonable to anticipate that growth can and will be speeded up to about 2.5% of GDP per year under the Trump administration.  Along with the tight labor market now developing (current unemployment rate of 4.4%), blue-collar and other middle class workers should continue to receive decent pay increases for the foreseeable future.

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