With a new Congress just elected, this is a good time to reflect about what changes should be made in public policy. Our biggest economic problem is to speed up growth in order to provide more and better paying jobs. In addition, a faster growing economy would bring in more tax revenue which would help pay our bills and reduce the deficit. A column in today’s New York Times, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming over Politics,” by David Leonhardt, proposes a cut in the marginal tax rate for the middle class as a way of boosting their incomes. As can be seen in the above chart, median household income has been flat since the year 2000, and even lower since the 2008 recession. Mr. Leonhardt goes on to say that any tax cut for the middle class should be balanced by a tax increase for the wealthy.
It so happens that I proposed such a plan several months ago as a way of boosting the economy and reducing inequality at the same time. The idea is to enact broad-based tax reform whereby tax rates are lowered for all, offset by shrinking tax deductions. The 64% of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions will receive a big tax cut. But these are the very middle-class wage earners with stagnant incomes. So they will likely spend their tax savings, thereby giving the economy a big boost.
Individual tax deductions total about $1 trillion per year.
Let’s suppose that these deductions are cut in half to $500 billion per year.
Let’s further suppose that half of this amount, or $250 billion per year, is cut from the taxes of the 64% who do not itemize deductions.
If these 64% spend just 2/3 of their new income (instead of saving it or paying off debt), this will total $170 billion which is 1% of GDP.
This would increase the rate of growth of GDP from the 2.2% average, since the end of the Great Recession, to 3.2%. This represents an enormous boost to the economy and would return average GDP growth to about its 3.3% average since 1947.
Mr. Leonhardt suggests that presidential contenders in 2016 would greatly benefit from proposing a tax rate cut for the middle class. Here’s a specific plan they can use!
The latest news on the American economy is mixed. The unemployment rate fell to 5.9% in September but the labor force also fell by 97,000 last month. The labor participation is now down to 62.7%, a level last seen in 1978. On the plus side 248,000 new jobs were created but the share of the population employed stayed at 59%, less than its 59.4% level at the end of the recession in June 2009. In other words, job growth is definitely picking up but not fast enough. How about income inequality? One simple way of describing and understanding the degree of income inequality in the U.S. is to look at median household income and how it changes over time. The above chart from the WSJ shows how the median U.S. household income fell from an all-time high of $56,895 in 1999 to $51,939 in 2013. However it also climbed back up to $56,436 in 2007 before dropping precipitously until 2012. The Global Strategy Group discovered in a recent survey that registered voters overwhelmingly rate economic growth as a higher priority than economic fairness. This means that any policy designed to speed up economic growth is likely to receive favorable support by the electorate.
In a recent post I describe a plan for broad-based tax reform specifically designed to speed up economic growth. It would involve an across-the-board cut in tax rates totaling about $500 billion per year, but completely paid for by closing loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy. The 64% of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions would receive a tax cut. And they would likely spend this extra money in their pockets because they are precisely the middle- and lower-income wage earners with falling incomes.
An income tax redistribution like this would greatly reduce inequality but in a way which is designed to give the economy a big boost!
The Harvard Business School has just conducted its third alumni survey on U.S. competitiveness and finds “An Economy Doing Half Its Job.” “Our report on the findings focuses on a troubling divergence in the American economy: large and midsize firms have rallied strongly from the Great Recession, and highly skilled individuals are prospering. But middle- and working-class citizens are struggling, as are small businesses. We argue that such a divergence is unsustainable.” Highlights of the survey are:
Survey respondents were pessimistic on balance, although less so than in previous surveys. By a ratio of three to two, those who foresaw a decline in U.S. competitiveness in the next three years outnumbered those who predicted an improvement. Respondents were much more hopeful about the future competitive success of America’s firms than they were about the future pay of America’s workers.
Respondents saw weaknesses in those aspects of the U.S. business environment that drive the prospects of middle- and working-class citizens, for instance, the education system, the quality of workplace skills, and the effectiveness of the political system.
Alumni working in small businesses had more negative views of virtually every aspect of the U.S. business environment. This finding echoes growing evidence from other sources that small businesses are disadvantaged in America.
The authors of the report “see a need for business leaders to move toward strategic, collaborative efforts that make the average American productive enough to command higher wages even in competitive global labor markets. Without such actions, the U.S. economy will continue to do only half its job, with many citizens struggling.” What’s interesting about this report is that it describes the problems of the American economy in a straightforward and practical way with no apparent ideological slant. Of course, addressing these issues requires political action with all of its messy, partisan overtones. Nevertheless perhaps all parties can at least agree on what the basic problem is.