The British economy is a disaster. Oddly enough most analysts find it difficult to explain why.
Actually the reason is quite simple. The British government responded to its own Great Recession by cutting spending and raising taxes. The result, which is anything but mysterious, is that the county remains in deep recession.
Matthew O’Brien, writing in the Atlantic, describes the situation as follows:
public net investment — things like roads and bridges and schools, and everything else the economy needs to grow — has fallen by half the past three years, and is set to fall even further the next two. It’s the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in both feet, just in case shooting yourself in one doesn’t completely cripple you. Austerity has driven down Britain’s borrowing costs even further, but that’s been due to investors losing faith in its recovery, rather than having more faith in its public finances. Indeed, weak growth has kept deficits from coming down all that much, despite the higher taxes and slower spending. In other words, it’s economic pain for no fiscal gain.
Below is a chart taken from the Atlantic article. It shows that:
Britain’s stagnating economy has left it in worse shape at this point of its recovery than it was during the Great Depression. GDP is still more than 3 percent below its 2008 peak, and it hasn’t done anything to catchup in years. At this pace, there will be no recovery in our time, or any other time.
In other words, while the British economy suffered a deeper decline during the Great Depression period of 1930 to 1934 than to this point in the Great Recession which started in 2008, the economy recovered far more quickly then than now. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be recovering now at all.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the situation is that political leaders appear determined to stay the course.
Considering the enormous time spent debating tax policy, it is easy to imagine that the U.S. must have one of the high tax rates in the world. Well, that is not the case.
The following graph is one of them. It shows the personal tax rate paid by people making the equivalent of $100,000 a year in 2012. The U.S. is the 55th ranked country out of 114 in terms of tax rates.
The next graph shows the same thing but for those earning the equivalent of $300,000 a year. The U.S. ranking is similar for this upper income group, 53rd highest out of 114.
Moreover, as Derek Thompson, the author of the Atlantic post, notes:
But these numbers might understate how low taxes have been in the U.S. Unlike most advanced economies, the U.S. don’t supplement personal income taxes with a national sales tax, or value-added tax (VAT). Consumption taxes accounted for about a fifth of total U.S. revenue in 2008 (mostly at the state and local level) compared to an OECD average of 32 percent. In other words, the U.S. relies uniquely on personal tax rates to raise revenue — and we have relatively low personal tax rates.
Finally, here is a look at the U.S. ranking among OECD countries for taxes as a share of GDP in 2008.
So, given that the U.S. doesn’t seem to be a high-tax rate country, why is tax policy so contentious? No doubt the answer has a lot to do with who actually pays the taxes and, perhaps even more importantly, what the revenue is used for.
The media continues to direct out attention to deficits and debt as our main problems. Yet, it does little to really highlight the causes of these deficits and debts.
The following two figures from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities help to clarify the causes. It is important to note that the projections underlying both figures were made before the recent vote making permanent most of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Figure 1, below, shows the main drivers of our large national deficits: the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our economic crisis and responses to it. Without those drivers our national deficits would have remained quite small.
Figure 2, below, shows the main drivers of our national debt. Not surprisingly they are the same as the drivers of our deficits.
Significantly, the same political leaders that scream the loudest about our deficits and debt have little to say about stopping the wars or reducing military spending and are the most adamant about maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts. That is because, at root, their interest is in reducing spending on non-security programs rather than reducing the deficit or debt.
Some of these leaders argue that the tax cuts will help correct our economic problems and thereby help reduce the deficit and debt. However, multiple studies have shown that tax cuts are among the least effective ways to stimulate employment and growth. In contrast, the most effective are sustained and targeted government efforts to refashion economic activity by spending on green conversion, infrastructure, health care, education and the like.
While Republicans and Democrats debate the extent to which taxes should be raised, both sides appear to agree on the need to reign in federal government spending in order to achieve deficit reduction. In fact, federal government spending has been declining both absolutely and, as the following figure from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows, as a share of GDP.
In reality, our main challenge is not reducing our deficit or debt but rather strengthening our economy, and cutting government spending is not going to help us overcome that challenge. As Peter Coy, writing in BusinessWeek explains:
It pains deficit hawks to hear this, but ever since the 2008 financial crisis, government red ink has been an elixir for the U.S. economy. After the crisis, households strove to pay down debt and businesses hoarded profits while skimping on investment. If the federal government had tried to run balanced budgets, there would have been an enormous economy wide deficit of demand and the economic slump would have been far worse. In 2009 fiscal policy added about 2.7 percentage points to what the economy’s growth rate would have been, according to calculations by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. But since then the U.S. has underutilized fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool. The economic boost dropped to just half a percentage point in 2010. Fiscal policy subtracted from growth in 2011 and 2012 and will do so again in 2013, to the tune of about 1 percentage point, Zandi estimates.
If we were serious about tackling our economic problems we would raise tax rates and close tax loopholes on the wealthy and corporations and reduce military spending, and then use a significant portion of the revenue generated to fund a meaningful government stimulus program. That would be a win-win proposition as far as the economy and budget is concerned.
Many expected that the severity of the Great Recession, recognition that the prior expansion was largely based on unsustainable bubbles, and an anemic post-crisis recovery, would lead to serious discussion about the need to transform our economy. Yet, it hasn’t happened.
One important reason is that not everyone has experienced the Great Recession and its aftermath the same. Jordan Weissmann, writing in the Atlantic, published the following figure from the work of Edward Wolff. As of 2010, median household net worth was back to levels last seen in the early 1960s. In contrast, mean household net worth had only retreated some ten years.
The great disparity between median and mean wealth declines is a reflection of the ability of those at the top of the wealth distribution to maintain most of their past gains. And the lack of discussion about the need for change in our economic system is largely a reflection of the ability of those very same people to influence our political leaders and shape our policy choices.
One of the subthemes of current discussions about how best to reduce our national debt is that we must reign in out-of-control spending on federal safety net programs. The reality is quite different.
The chart below shows spending trends in terms of GDP for the ten major needs-tested benefit programs that make-up our federal social safety net. The programs, in the order listed on the chart, are:
- The refundable portion of the health insurance tax credit enacted in the 2010 health care reform law
- Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Financial assistance for post-secondary students (Pell Grants)
- Compensatory Education Grants to school districts
- Assisted Housing
- The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
- The Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Family Support Payments
As Jared Bernstein explains:
for all the popular wisdom that programs to help low-income people are swallowing the economy, the truth is that like so much else that plagues our fiscal future, it’s all about health care spending. The figure shows that as a share of GDP, prior to the Great Recession, non-health care spending was cruising along at around 1.5% for decades. It was Medicaid/CHIP (Medicaid expansion for kids) that did most of the growing.
Regardless, the recent explosion in the ratio of Medicare/CHIP spending to GDP is largely due to the severity of the Great Recession, not the generosity of the programs. The recession increased poverty and thus eligibility for the programs, thereby pushing up the numerator, while simultaneously lowering GDP, the denominator. Moreover, spending on all non-health care safety net programs is on course to dramatically decline as a share of GDP. Even Medicare/Chip spending is projected to stabilize as a share of GDP.
These programs are essential given the poor performance of the economy and in most cases poorly funded. Cutting their budgets will not only deny people access to health care, housing, education, and food, it will also further weaken the economy, in both the short and long run.
The following two charts taken from a Center for Economic Policy and Research Center study by John Schmitt and Janelle Jones highlight the distressed nature of the U.S. labor market and the need for raising the minimum wage and strengthening union organizing.
Schmitt and Jones define low wage work as that work paying $10.00 an hour or less in 2011 dollars. As the charts show, low wage workers are far more educated and older in 2011 than in 1979. Said differently, education and experience are not sufficient to ensure a living wage.
Not surprisingly, growing numbers of low wage workers at Walmart and at chain fast food restaurants have begun engaging in direct action for higher wages and better working conditions. They deserve our support.
The New York Times published a very interesting article on taxes. Most importantly it is accompanied by great graphics illustrating the changing tax burden of households by income bracket over the period 1980 to 2010. The taxes covered include federal taxes, payroll taxes, state and local taxes, and corporate taxes.
The screen shot below highlights the share of yearly income paid in combined federal and state and local taxes by households in different income brackets. As one can see, the tax burden fell for every income bracket, with those at the top enjoying the greatest reduction. There is no getting around the fact that tax rates, at least for the wealthy, must go up if we are to adequately fund necessary programs.
This combined view of our tax burden masks a striking difference between the trends in federal and state and local tax burdens. While the federal tax burden went down over the period 1980 to 2010 for households in every income group, the state and local tax burden rose for households in every income group.
Significantly, and perhaps explaining the strength of the anti-tax movement, state and local tax burdens rose most for households in the lowest income brackets. The same is true for the payroll taxes. The screen shot below shows the trends in both state and local and payroll tax burdens for all income groups.
As the Times article notes, “Public debate over taxes has typically focused on the federal income tax, but that now accounts for less than a third of the total tax revenues collected by federal, state and local governments.” Clearly, tax reform needs to take place at all levels of government. But that is only one side of the picture. Attention must also be given to the pattern and beneficiaries of government spending.
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.