Archive for November, 2012
With the election over, the news is now focused, somewhat hysterically, on the threat of the fiscal cliff.
The fiscal cliff refers to the fact that at the end of this calendar year several temporary tax cuts are scheduled to expire (including those that lowered rates on income and capital gains as well as payroll taxes) and early in the next year spending cuts are scheduled for military and non-military federal programs. See here for details on the taxes and programs.
Most analysts agree that if tax rates rise and federal spending is cut the result will be a significant contraction in aggregate demand, pushing the U.S. economy into recession in 2013.
The U.S. economy is already losing steam. GDP growth in the second half of 2009, which marked the start of the recovery, averaged 2.7% on an annualized basis. GDP growth in 2010 was a lower 2.4%. GDP growth in 2011 averaged a still lower 2.0%. And growth in the first half of this year declined again, to an annualized rate of 1.8%.
With banks unwilling to loan, businesses unwilling to invest or hire, and government spending already on the decline, there can be little doubt that a further fiscal tightening will indeed mean recession.
So, assuming we don’t want to go over the fiscal cliff, what are our choices?
Both Republicans and Democrats face this moment in agreement that our national deficits and debt are out of control and must be reduced regardless of the consequences for overall economic activity. What they disagree on is how best to achieve the reduction. Most Republicans argue that we should renew the existing tax cuts and protect the military budget. Deficit reduction should come from slashing the non-military discretionary portion of the budget, which, as Ethan Pollack explains, includes:
safety net programs like housing vouchers and nutrition assistance for women and infants; most of the funding for the enforcement of consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial regulation; and practically all of the federal government’s civilian public investments, such as infrastructure, education, training, and research and development.
The table below shows the various programs/budgets that make up the non-security discretionary budget and their relative size. The chart that follows shows how spending on this part of the budget is already under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Democrat’s response to the fiscal cliff is only marginally better than that of the Republicans. President Obama also wants to shrink the deficit and national debt, but in “a more balanced way.” He wants both tax increases and spending cuts. He is on record seeking $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten year period, with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.
The additional revenue in his plan will come from allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, raising the tax rate on the top income tax bracket, and limiting the value of tax deductions. While an important improvement, President Obama is also committed to significant cuts in non-military discretionary spending. Although his cuts would not be as great as those advocated by the Republicans, reducing spending on most of the targeted programs makes little social or economic sense given current economic conditions.
So, how do we scale the fiscal cliff in a responsible way?
We need to start with the understanding that we do not face a serious national deficit or debt problem. As Jamie Galbraith notes:
. . . is there a looming crisis of debt or deficits, such that sacrifices in general are necessary? No, there is not. Not in the short run – as almost everyone agrees. But also: not in the long run. What we have are computer projections, based on arbitrary – and in fact capricious – assumptions. But even the computer projections no longer show much of a crisis. CBO has adjusted its interest rate forecast, and even under its “alternative fiscal scenario” the debt/GDP ratio now stabilizes after a few years.
Actually, as the chart below shows, the deficit is already rapidly falling. In fact, the decline in government spending over the last few years is likely one of the reasons why our economic growth is slowing so dramatically.
As Jed Graham points out:
From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, the deficit shrank 3.1 percentage points, from 10.1% to 7.0% of GDP. That’s just a bit faster than the 3.0 percentage point deficit improvement from 1995 to ’98, but at that point, the economy had everything going for it.
Other occasions when the federal deficit contracted by much more than 1 percentage point a year have coincided with recession. Some examples include 1937, 1960 and 1969.
In short, we do not face a serious problem of growing government deficits. Rather the problem is one of too fast a reduction in the deficit in light of our slowing economy.
As to the challenge of the fiscal cliff—here we have to recognize, as Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse explain, that:
the budget impact and the economic impact are not necessarily the same. Some policies that are expensive in budgetary terms have only modest economic impacts (for example, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts aimed at high-income households are costly but do not have much economic impact). Conversely, other policies with small budgetary costs have big economic impacts (for example, extended unemployment insurance benefits).
In other words, we should indeed allow the temporary tax rate deductions for the wealthy to expire, on both income and capital gains taxes. These deductions cost us dearly on the budget side without adding much on the economic side. As shown here and here, the evidence is strong that the only thing produced by lowering taxes on the wealthy is greater income inequality.
Letting existing tax rates rise for individuals making over $200,000 and families making over $250,000 a year, raising the top income tax bracket for both couples and singles that make more than $388,350, and limiting tax deductions will generate close to $1.5 trillion dollars over ten years as highlighted below in a Wall Street Journal graphic .
However, in contrast to President Obama’s proposal, we should also support the planned $500 billion in cuts to the military budget. We don’t need the new weapons and studies are clear that spending on the military (as well as tax cuts) is a poor way to generate jobs. For example, the table below shows the employment effects of spending $1 billion on the military versus spending the same amount on education, health care, clean energy, or tax cuts.
And, we should also oppose any cuts in our non-security discretionary budget. Instead, we should take at least half the savings from the higher tax revenues and military spending cuts–that would be a minimum of $1 trillion–and spend it on programs designed to boost our physical and social infrastructure. Here I have in mind retrofitting buildings, improving our mass transit systems, increasing our development and use of safe and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and expanding and strengthening our social services, including education, health care, libraries, and the like.
Our goal should be a strong and accountable public sector, good jobs for all, and healthy communities, not debt reduction. The above policy begins to move us in the right direction.
One of the biggest obstacles to improving economic conditions has been majority belief that our current economic system is capable of delivering steady improvements in living and working conditions. Because of that belief, it has been easy for economic and political elites to convince large numbers of people that current economic problems must be the result of too much government spending, or immigrants, or unions, or taxes or . . . . In other words anything but capitalism itself.
However, there are now signs that the times may be changing.
A New York Times blog post by Thomas B. Edsall discusses some recent polling data which suggests that growing numbers of Americans, what many analysts are calling the rising American electorate–unmarried women, young people, Hispanics, and African Americans–are open to serious economic change.
For example, Edsall summarizes the results of one poll as follows:
When voters were asked whether cutting taxes or investing in education and infrastructure is the better policy to promote economic growth, the constituencies of the new liberal electorate consistently chose education and infrastructure by margins ranging from 2-1 to 3-2 — African Americans by 62-33, Hispanics by 61-37, never-married men by 56-38, never-married women by 64-30, voters under 30 by 63-34, and those with post-graduate education by 60-33.
Conservative constituencies generally chose lowering taxes by strong margins — whites by 52-42, married men by 59-34, married women by 51-44, all men by 52-41; older voters between the ages of 50 and 65 by 54-42.
The constituencies that make up the rising American electorate are firmly in favor of government action to reduce the gap between rich and poor, by 85-15 among blacks, 74-26 for Hispanics; 70-30 never-married men; 83-15 never-married women; and 76-24 among voters under 30. Conservative groups range from lukewarm to opposed: 53-47 for men; 53-47 among voters 50-65; 46-54 among married men; 52-47 among all whites.
One of the clearest divides between the rising American electorate and the rest of the country is in responses to the statement “Government is providing too many social services that should be left to religious groups and private charities. Black disagree 67-32; Hispanics disagree 57-40; never-married women 70-27; never-married men, 59-41; young voters, 66-34; and post-grad, 65-34. Conversely, whites agree with the statement 54-45; married men agree, 60-39; married women, 55-44; all men, 55-43.
Edsall also cites a 2011 Pew Research Center Poll that is even more suggestive of support for fundamental change. Although it is impossible to know what people mean by the terms capitalism and socialism, the table below, taken from the poll, suggests that opposition to capitalism is at significant levels among many of the groups that comprise the rising American electorate.
Polling data is not the same as political action of course. But the negative views of capitalism and surprisingly strong support for socialism among many in the population must be worrisome to those who continue to benefit from existing economic relations.
One can only imagine that far more people will come to hold these views if government leaders succeed in using the artificially created “fiscal cliff” to further cut key social programs. People want action on jobs, not cuts in government spending, regardless of whether those cuts are accompanied by tax increases on the wealthy.
There is growing talk that the economy is finally on its way to recovery—“A Steady, Slo-Mo Recovery”—in the words of Businessweek.
Here is how Peter Coy, writing in Businessweek, explains the growing consensus:
Job growth is poised to continue increasing tax revenue, which will make it easier to shrink the budget deficit while keeping taxes low and preserving essential spending. All this will occur without any magic emanating from the Oval Office. It would have occurred if Mitt Romney had been elected president. “The economy’s operating well below potential, and there’s a lot of room for growth” regardless of who’s in office, says Mark Zandi, chief economist of forecaster Moody’s Analytics.
Something could still go wrong, but the median prediction of 37 economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators is that during the next four years, economic growth will gather momentum as jobless people go back to work and unused machinery is put back into service. “The self-correcting forces in the economy will prevail,” predicts Ben Herzon, senior economist at Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm in St. Louis.
Before we get lulled to sleep, we need some perspective about the challenges ahead. How about this: we face a 9 million jobs gap, and this doesn’t even address the low quality of the jobs being created.
The chart below, taken from an Economic Policy Institute blog post, illustrates the gap.
As Heidi Shierholz, the author of the post, explains:
The labor market has added nearly 5 million jobs since the post-Great Recession low in Feb. 2010. Because of the historic job loss of the Great Recession, however, the labor market still has 3.8 million fewer jobs than it had before the recession began in Dec. 2007. Furthermore, because the potential labor force grows as the population expands, in the nearly five years since the recession started we should have added 5.2 million jobs just to keep the unemployment rate stable. Putting these numbers together means the current gap in the labor market is 9.0 million jobs. To put that number in context: filling the 9 million jobs gap in three years—by fall 2015—while still keeping up with the growth in the potential labor force, would require adding around 330,000 jobs every single month between now and then.
Unfortunately, our “job creators” only created 171,000 net jobs in October. And that was considered a relatively good month. The chart below, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, gives a sense of what we are up against.
Of course, weak job growth in the past doesn’t mean that we cannot have strong job growth in the future. On the other hand, such a change would require consensus on radically different policies than those currently being discussed and debated by those in power.
The good economic news, which got plenty of attention, is that the U.S. economy added over 170,000 new jobs in October. The largely unreported negative news is that average real hourly wages in the private sector declined that month, and have been in decline for most of the past year.
It is hard to remember that the economy has been in expansion since June 2009.
Jeffrey Sparshott, in a Wall Street Journal blog post, offered the following chart of the trend in hourly earnings in private industry, with each point showing the change from a year earlier.
Citing a Labor Department report, Sparshott noted that:
hours worked were flat [in October] for the fourth straight month. Meanwhile, average hourly earnings for all employees on private payrolls fell by 1 cent to $23.58 in October. Over the past 12 months, earnings have risen a scant 1.6%. That’s not enough to keep up with inflation. The consumer price index was up 2% in September from a year earlier.
It’s even worse for blue-collar workers. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees edged down by 1 cent to $19.79, only a 1.1% increase over the past year.
The blog post quoted the HSBC’s chief U.S. economist who said:
This is the smallest increase in wages on record for the data going back to 1964. The persistently high level of unemployment over the past few years is clearly restraining wage gains and suppressing any inflationary pressures that might have possibly emanated from the labor market.
It also quoted the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan Chase who said:
This pace of labor income growth may be quite acceptable for corporate profits, but it does pose headwinds for consumer spending growth.
Consumer spending did rise last quarter, helping to boost third quarter U.S. GDP, but this was largely because of a decline in the personal savings rate, which fell from 4.0% in the second quarter to 3.7% in the third.
We clearly don’t have a foundation for a sustained economic recovery, certainly not one that brings benefits to the majority of workers. Instead of talk about austerity we need a real debate about the best way to strength worker bargaining power.