A Pessimistic View of America’s Future IV. The Age of Oversupply


Today’s New York Times has an interesting Op Ed column by Daniel Alpert, a partner at the investment bank, Westwood Capital, LLC, “The Rut We Can’t Get Out Of” .  It is based on Mr. Alpert’s new book, “The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy”.
“Hundreds of millions of people who once lived in sleepy or sclerotic statist and socialist economies now compete directly or indirectly with workers in the United States, Europe and Japan, in a world bound by lightning-fast communications and transportation,” says Mr. Alpert.
During the “Great Moderation,” beginning in the early 1980’s, with the tech bubble of the 1990’s and the housing bubble of the 2000’s, we could ignore this threat from the developing world.  But now, after the financial crisis and the Great Recession which followed, this huge new source of global competition for jobs and cheap goods is a drag on our recovery.
Mr. Alpert’s main prescription for recovery is to put the unemployed back to work “by any means, including big public sector investments to improve infrastructure and competitiveness.”  He would do this with massive new deficit spending, arguing that U.S. debt is not a serious problem in the short term.
I agree with his argument that the global oversupply of workers, money and goods is a huge threat to future prosperity.  Where I disagree is when he says that faster economic growth is more important than controlling deficit spending.
In my opinion, “America’s existential threat is fiscal” (Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane).  In other words, as important as it is to boost the economy and create more jobs, and this is very important indeed, it is more urgent to get deficit spending under control and to do this quickly.  We can actually accomplish both of these critical tasks simultaneously, as I discussed in my post of September 20, 2013.

One Way to Solve the National Debt Problem

In today’s New York Times, the economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write that “Republicans and Democrats Both Miscalculated”.  They say that “when the Congressional Budget Office recently lowered its forecast of future deficits, many voices on the left claimed that the problem had been overblown by ‘austerity scaremongers’” and that “some voices on the right have renewed calls to ‘starve the beast’ now that deficits are under control.”  But they point out that just because the deficit is likely to shrink for the next couple of years, CBO also projects that it will soon be back up to a trillion dollars per year indefinitely into the future.  And this is all optimistically assuming full employment, robust growth and moderate interest rates.
The Hubbard/Kane solution is to amend the Constitution with a flexible Balanced Budget Amendment.  Its features would include: 1) a provision that spending in a given year would not exceed income averaged over the previous seven years, 2) no restriction on tax rates which would have to be hashed out by Congress and 3) an exception to spending restraint for national emergencies.
There are, of course, valid objections to a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.  It reduces the flexibility of Congress and the President to act as needed.  It would be much better for Congress to act in a fiscally responsible manner on its own initiative.  But we all know that this doesn’t happen.  The pressure is always to adopt new spending programs and never to cut existing programs, no matter how ineffective they are.
Debt is the “single biggest threat to our national security” declared Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Many other prominent citizens express similar thoughts on a regular basis.  It is really just basic common sense that no governmental unit can flagrantly ignore this fundamental economic principle year after year without very serious repercussions.  It is (well past) time to force our national leaders to bite the bullet and do what almost every sane person knows what must be done.

Is America in Decline?

A new book by the two economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane “Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America” analyzes the decline of many of the great empires and civilizations in human history.  According to the authors, they all declined (or are now declining!) primarily for internal economic reasons rather than from external military threat.  The authors conclude that America’s own existential threat is fiscal.  Our lowest debt level in recent years was 23.9% of GDP in 1974 ($344 billion) which has climbed to 75% of GDP today ($12 trillion) and is predicted to keep growing worse in the years to come.
Our political system is too polarized to solve our huge debt problem.  Republicans want lower taxes; Democrats want higher spending.  If Republicans succeed in cutting spending, it upsets the voters and gives the Democrats an advantage.  If Democrats succeed in raising taxes, it upsets the voters and gives the Republicans an advantage.  So we end up with low taxes, high spending, fiscal imbalance and political stalemate.  This is the dilemma we are in.
But the authors propose a solution: a flexible balanced budget constitutional amendment where total outlays for a year do not exceed the median annual revenue collected in the seven prior years.  A three-fifths supermajority of each house of Congress can declare a one-year emergency exemption.  Additional one-year exemptions may be approved only by escalating votes in each house of Congress.  The amendment would take effect in the seventh year following ratification by the states.  During the seven year transition period the deficit would be reduced gradually each year until it reached zero.
Messrs Hubbard and Kane provide an excellent, nonpartisan analysis of the deep predicament in which our country now finds itself as well as an attractive means of extricating ourselves from this precarious situation.