I seldom use the New York Times sociological columnist, David Brooks, as a source for my blog posts because I am focused primarily on economic and fiscal issues. But his column today, “Saving The System,” is highly pertinent to my message. “All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine escalate their apocalyptic rhetoric. The Sunni-Shiite split worsens as Syria and Iraq slide into chaos. China pushes its weight around in the Pacific. … The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma. No individual problem is worth devoting giant resources to. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system.”
In addition to all of these pesky worldwide problems, our free enterprise economic system is under siege. Wages have been largely stagnant since the early 1970s and income inequality is growing as the top 1%, and perhaps the top 10 or 15% as well, do much better than everyone else. And just lately we have also learned from the French economist, Thomas Piketty, that wealth inequality has been growing steadily ever since about 1950 and is likely to get substantially worse in the future.
In other words, western civilization is under threat in more ways than one. What are we going to do about it? At the risk of oversimplifying, I believe that the single best thing we can do is to undertake fundamental tax reform to make our economy stronger. Cut everyone’s tax rates and pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy.
Lower tax rates will put more money in the hands of the two thirds of Americans who don’t itemize their tax deductions. These are largely the same people with stagnant wages and so they will spend this extra income they receive.
The resulting increase in demand will put millions of people back to work and thereby increase tax revenues which will help balance the budget. This shift of income from the wealthy to the less wealthy will reduce income inequality.
Although harder to implement politically, a low (between 1% and 2%) wealth tax on financial assets above a threshold of $10 million per individual, would be a highly visible way to address wealth inequality. The substantial sum of revenue raised by this method could be used to fund national priorities as well as paying down the deficit.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I consider this program to be a panacea for strengthening our country. But it would help and we need to make some big changes to maintain our status as world leader.
Wall Street Journal columnist William Galston suggests in “Where Right and Left Agree on Inequality”, that both sides of the political spectrum agree that economic inequality is increasing in America and that government needs to address this problem. “Poverty is part of the explanation, as liberals insist. But so are parenting and family structure, as conservatives believe.” It so happens that we have a broadly supported federal program which simultaneously addresses both poverty and family structure. It is the Earned Income Tax Credit program. It provides $3,305 a year to low-income working families with one child and up to $6,143 for families with three or more children. The U.S. spends $61 billion a year on this program and it has proven to be very successful in encouraging low-income people to find and keep jobs. In fact, the economist, Gregory Mankiw, recommends the EITC over a higher minimum wage as a better way to increase the earnings of the working poor.
The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter reports in “Seeking Ways to Help the Poor and Childless”, that New York City is conducting an experiment to see if a locally run program similar to the EITC will have the same positive effect in increasing employment of childless adults. It is understood that many of the jobs being created in today’s economy are low paying service jobs. As Mr. Porter says, “for the American market economy to remain viable, being employed must, one way or another, provide for workers’ needs.”
Conclusion: as important as it is for Congress and the President to adopt measures to increase economic growth (e.g. tax reform, fiscal stability, expanded foreign trade, immigration reform), in order to create more and better paying jobs, government also has a responsibility to provide direct help to the needy who are trying to help themselves. The EITC program is an excellent way to do this!
In the latest issue of Barron’s, Frederick Rowe, the managing partner of Greenbrier Partners Capital Management, asks in “More Than a Sugar High?” , “Can you imagine a country that is managed in an economically rational manner, creating the wealth that’s necessary to take proper care of the citizens who get left behind? … What if our economic recovery is more than a sugar high? What if there is more here than insanely stimulative monetary policy from the Federal Reserve? What if the U.S. has already begun to steer an economic course to a period of unprecedented and genuine prosperity, achievement, and problem solving?”
Here are eight factors which Mr. Rowe gives to point us in the right direction:
North American Energy Independence (already on the horizon).
Sensible Immigration Reform: encouraging our most enterprising and hard-working people to become citizens rather than chasing them away.
Repatriation of Corporate Income: if a company domiciled in the U.S. makes money in Argentina and wants to invest it in the U.S. we double-tax the daylights out of it. It would be hard to imagine a more counterproductive tax policy.
Changing Directors and Their Thinking: the once unthinkable mindset of corporate directors acting on behalf of long-term owners (rather than the CEOs with whom they play golf) is actually gaining traction.
Lowering Corporate Taxes: the tax-writing committees in Congress are working on this.
Increasing Technological Leadership: the most dynamic technology companies in the world are domiciled in the U.S. Technology, in the short run, displaces workers. But eventually workers catch up because new technology creates new kinds of jobs that were never imagined before.
Americanization of the World: more than three billion people around the world will soon be able to afford to live much more like the 300 million Americans do. So companies which make it big here have an automatic global opportunity.
Obamacare: Even this bureaucratic catastrophe provides a large opportunity for economic opportunity. Think of Jimmy Carter’s failures which led to Ronald Reagan’s successes.
“Let your imagination run and consider all the things that can be accomplished by an energy-independent, cash-generating, cash-repatriating country that is a hotbed of technological innovation.”
I can’t possibly say it any better than this!
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.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the economist Robert Grady addresses “Obama’s Misguided Obsession With Inequality”. The basic problem is that an important Congressional Budget Office report in 2011, “ Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007”, is easy to misrepresent and misinterpret. Here are three basic pieces of data from the CBO report: The first chart shows that yes, between 1979 and 2007 the rich did indeed get richer relative to the rest of the population. The second chart shows, however, that median household income increased by 62% during this same time period. And the third chart shows that all five income groups made substantial gains at the same time.
As Mr. Grady says, “Here is the bottom line. In periods of high economic growth, such as the 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of Americans gain and have the opportunity to gain. In periods of slow growth, such as the past four and a half years since the recession officially ended, poor people and the middle class are hurt the most, and opportunity is curbed. … The point is this: If the goal is to deliver higher incomes and a better standard of living for the majority of Americans, then generating economic growth – not income inequality or the redistribution of wealth – is the defining challenge of our time.”
So then, what is the best way to address income inequality? Should we concentrate on raising taxes on the rich and increasing spending on social programs like we have done in the last five years? Or should we rather concentrate on speeding up economic growth, as Mr. Grady says, in order to create more jobs and more opportunities for advancement?
Compare the enormous growth in the period from 1979 to 2007 with the stagnation of the past five years. Isn’t it obvious which is the better way to proceed?
The economist Joseph Stiglitz has an Op Ed column in today’s New York Times, “In No One We Trust”, blaming the financial crisis on the banking industry. “In the years leading up to the crisis our traditional bankers changed drastically, aggressively branching out into other activities, including those historically associated with investment banking. Trust went out the window. … When 1 percent of the population takes home more than 22 percent of the country’s income – and 95 percent of the increase in income in the post-crisis recovery – some pretty basic things are at stake. … Reasonable people can look at this absurd distribution and be pretty certain that the game is rigged. … I suspect that there is only one way to really get trust back. We need to pass strong regulations, embodying norms of good behavior, and appoint bold regulators to enforce them.” Mr. Stiglitz is partially correct. Although the housing bubble, caused by poor government policy – loose money, subprime mortgages, and lax regulation – was the primary cause of the financial crisis, nevertheless, poorly regulated banking practices made the crisis much worse. But this is all being fixed with Dodd-Frank, a just recently implemented Volker Rule, and a soon coming wind-down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Mr. Stiglitz concludes, “Without trust, there can be no harmony, nor can there be a strong economy. Inequality is degrading our trust. For our own sake, and for the sake of future generations, it is time to start rebuilding it. But how do we reduce the inequality in order to restore the trust which is necessary for a strong economy? Mr. Stiglitz doesn’t say! What we need is faster economic growth in order to create more new jobs. The last four years have demonstrated that the Federal Reserve can’t accomplish this with quantitative easing. It needs to be done by private business and entrepreneurship. Tax reform and the easing of regulations on new businesses is what we need. It’s too bad that ideological blinders prevent so many people from understanding this basic truth!
A recent article in Bloomberg View by Cass Sunstein, “How Did the 1 Percent Get Ahead So Fast?“, discusses the significance of new research by the economist Emmanuel Saez, ”Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States”. Referring to Saez’s table and chart below, the conclusion is that income inequality has been getting steadily worse since the early 1980s and has been especially pronounced since June 2009 when the Great Recession ended. In particular, 95% of all income gain in the last four years has gone to the top 1%. This is a much greater disparity than during the so-called Clinton Expansion, from 1993 – 2000 (45% to the top 1%) or during the Bush Expansion, from 2002 – 2007 (65% to the top 1%). According to Mr. Sunstein, “one point is clear: through 2012 the gains from the current recovery were concentrated among the top 1 percent, and that pattern, extreme though it is, fits with a general surge in economic inequality over the last 40 years.” But there is more to the story! Looking at the final chart, just above, it is clear that the economy grew much faster during the Clinton Expansion than during the Bush Expansion, and, in turn, much more slowly during the Obama Recovery. In other words, the way to reduce inequality is to speed up economic growth. There are tried and true ways to speed up growth (e.g. tax reform with lower rates, emphasis on deregulation, boosting entrepreneurship, etc.). It is unfortunate that too many in Congress, as well as the President have ideological blinders which prevent them from moving in this direction!
The liberal economist Paul Krugman returns to one of his favorite topics in yesterday’s New York Times, “Why Inequality Matters”. “On average, Americans remain a lot poorer today than they were before the economic crisis. For the bottom 90 percent of families, this impoverishment reflects both a shrinking economic pie and a declining share of that pie.” The problem with Mr. Krugman’s analysis is that he offers no solution beyond more fiscal stimulus: “the premature return to fiscal austerity has done more than anything to hobble the recovery.” But there is another route to recovery and it is propounded in today’s Wall Street Journal by George Osborne, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, “How Britain Returned to Growth”. “We cut spending and top tax rates, and now deficits are down and jobs are being created at a healthy clip … at the rate of 60,000 per month, roughly equivalent to 300,000 in the U.S. … The corporate tax rate is being cut to 20% from 28%. … As a result, more international firms are moving their headquarters to Britain and investment is flowing into our country.”
Yes, as Mr. Krugman says, economic inequality in the U.S. is bad and getting worse. The question is what to do about it. Shall we try to improve the situation with artificial stimulation, increasing government debt, already very high, for future generations? Or shall we address this inequality by encouraging businesses to grow and expand and thereby raise wages and hire more people.
The good news is that America is the success story of the 20th century. The bad news is that everyone else in the world has figured this out and is now copying our own best methods. Either we can compete, innovate, stay on top and thrive, or else we can get lazy, stagnate and sink down in the pack.
Will it be more inequality or more growth? The choice is up to us!
Harvard Economist, Martin Feldstein, has an Op Ed column in yesterday’s New York Times, “Saving The Fed From Itself”, which gets our current economic situation half right. First of all, Mr. Feldstein says that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy is inadequate because “the magnitude of the effect has been too small to raise economic growth to a healthy rate. … The net result is that the economy has been growing at an annual rate of less than 2 percent. … Weak growth has also meant weak employment gains. … Total private sector employment is actually less than it was six years ago. … While doing little to stimulate the economy, the Fed’s policy of low long-term interest rates has caused individuals and institutions to take excessive risks that could destabilize the economy just as it did before the 2007-2009 recession.” So far he’s right on the button!
But then he goes on to say, “To get the economy back on track,” Congress should enact a five year plan to spend a trillion dollars or more on infrastructure improvement and that this would “move the growth of gross domestic product to above three percent a year.” An artificial stimulus like this might work temporarily but then it ends and we’re back where we started. We need a self-generating stimulus that will keep going indefinitely on its own. How do we accomplish this?
The answer should be obvious. We do it by stimulating the private sector to take more risk in order to generate more profits. In the process they will hire more employees and boost the economy.
How do we motivate the private sector? By lowering tax rates and loosening the regulations which stifle growth. Closing tax loopholes and lowering deductions (which will raise revenue to offset the lower tax rates) has the added benefit of attacking the corporate cronyism which everyone deplores.
We really do need to put first things first. If we can jump start the economy by motivating the private sector to invest and grow, we will have more tax revenue to spend on new and expanded government programs as well as shrinking the federal deficit.
Why is this so hard for so many people to understand?
An article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions”, reports a ruling by bankruptcy judge Steven W. Rhodes that Detroit “could formally enter bankruptcy and that Detroit’s obligations to pay pensions in full is not inviolable.”
The article goes on to say “that most here agree that the city’s situation is dire: annual operating deficits since 2008, a pattern of new borrowing to pay for old borrowing, miserably diminished city services, and the earmarking of about 38 percent of tax revenues for debt service. A city that was once the nation’s fourth largest has dropped to 18th, losing more than half of its population since 1950. The city was once home to 1.8 million people but now has closer to 700,000.”
The parallels and analogies between what has happened in Detroit and what is now happening in the U.S. are striking. The U.S. has had huge annual deficits for five years in a row and the accumulated debt is enormous, the Federal Reserve is holding interest rates down to make borrowing cheaper, and our country’s infrastructure is deteriorating much faster than it is being repaired.
Right now interest on the national debt is small ($223 billion in 2013, or 8% of federal revenues). But interest rates will inevitably return before long to their average historical rate of about 5%. Right now the public debt (on which we pay interest) is just over $12 trillion. This means that in the near future interest on the national debt will be at least $600 billion per year and probably much larger because the debt is still growing so rapidly. This will take a huge bite out of revenue and leave far less of it for other purposes.
This problem will continue to exist even if the budget were to be miraculously balanced from now on but it would at least lessen over time as the economy continues to grow. Without budget restraint the problem will never go away and will be a perpetual drag on our national welfare.
This is, of course, exactly the condition in which Detroit finds itself at the present time. Detroit has the option to declare bankruptcy and make its creditors and pensioners take big losses. Once it does this it can make a fresh start and perhaps recover its former status.
But are we prepared to let the whole country suffer a similar fate? The consequences would be enormous. If the U.S. goes down, the whole western world could come down with it. Democracy and human progress would be severely threatened. This is really too terrible a tragedy to even contemplate. Let’s turn things around before they get any worse!