Jobs are returning with depressing slowness, and most of the new jobs pay less than the jobs that were lost in the Great Recession.
Economic determinists — fatalists, really — assume that globalization and technological change must now condemn a large portion of the American workforce to under-unemployment and stagnant wages, while rewarding those with the best eductions and connections with ever higher wages and wealth. And therefore that the only way to get good jobs back and avoid widening inequality is to withdraw from the global economy and become neo-Luddites, destroying the new labor-saving technologies.
That’s dead wrong. Economic isolationism and neo-Ludditism would reduce everyone’s living standards. Most importantly, there are many ways to create good jobs and reduce inequality.
Other nations are doing it. Germany was generating higher real median wages until recently, before it was dragged down by austerity it imposed the European Union. Singapore and South Korea continue to do so. Chinese workers have been on a rapidly-rising tide of higher real wages for several decades. These nations are implementing national economic strategies to build good jobs and widespread prosperity. The United States is not.
Any why not? Both because we don’t have the political will to implement them, and we’re trapped in an ideological straightjacket that refuses to acknowledge the importance of such a strategy. The irony is we already have a national economic strategy but it’s been dictated largely by powerful global corporations and Wall Street. And, not surprisingly, rather than increase the jobs and wages of most Americans, that strategy has been increasing the global profits and stock prices of these giant corporations and Wall Street banks.
If we had a strategy designed to increase jobs and wages, what would it look like? For starters, it would focus on raising the productivity of all Americans through better education — including early-childhood education and near-free higher education. That would require a revolution in how we finance public education. It’s insane that half of K-12 budgets still come from local property taxes, for example, especially given that we’re segregating geographically by income. And it makes no sense to pay for the higher education of young people from middle and lower-income families through student debt; that’s resulted in a mountain of debt that can’t or won’t be paid off, and it assumes that higher education is a private investment rather than a public good.
It would also require greater accountability by all schools and universities for better outcomes — but not just better test results. The only sure thing standardized tests measure is the ability to take standardized tests. Yet the new economy demands problem-solving and original thinking, not standardized answers.
Better education would just be a start. We would also unionize low-wage service workers in order to give them bargaining power to get better wages. Such workers — mostly in big-box retailers, fast-food chains, hospitals, and hotel chains — aren’t exposed to global competition or endangered by labor-substituting technologies, yet their wages and working conditions are among the worst in the nation. And they represent among the fastest-growing of all job categories.
We would raise the minimum wage to half the median wage and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. We’d also eliminate payroll taxes on the first $15,000 of income, making up the shortfall in Social Security by raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax.
We’d also restructure the relationships between management and labor. We would require, for example, that companies give their workers shares of stock, and more voice in corporate decision making. And that companies spend at least 2% of their earnings upgrading the skills of their lower-wage workers.
We’d also condition government largesse to corporations on their agreement to help create more and better jobs. For example, we’d require that companies receiving government R&D funding do their R&D in the U.S.
We would prohibit companies from deducting the cost of executive compensation in excess of more than 100 times the median compensation of their employees or the employees of their contractors. And bar them from providing tax-free benefits to executives without providing such benefits to all their employees.
And we would turn the financial system back into a means for investing the nation’s savings rather than a casino for placing huge and risky bets that, when they go wrong, impose huge costs on everyone else.
There’s no magic bullet for regaining good jobs and no precise contours to what such a national economic strategy might be, but at the very least we should be having a robust discussion about it. Instead, economic determinists seem to have joined up with the free-market ideologues in preventing such a conversation from even beginning.
By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, June 11, 2013
“A Failure To Hold Congress Accountable”: Economic Policy Is Largely Being Driven By Obstructionism, Not Economic Advisers
President Obama is reportedly planning to nominate economist Jason Furman to replace Alan Krueger as the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. Like Krueger and, for that matter, Austan Goolsbee and Christina Romer who previously served this administration in the same capacity, Furman boasts an impressive resume, with a Harvard economics doctorate as well as stints at the Brooking Institution, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), and the CEA under President Clinton, among others. If you’re still of the incorrect belief that tax cuts largely pay for themselves (looking at you, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), do yourself a favor and read his CBPP report explaining the mechanics and empirics of “dynamic scoring” (pdf) and why invoking it as a talisman doesn’t mean one can claim anything one finds politically expedient.
The Beltway coverage of this news is overly focused on the inside baseball politics between the CEA and the National Economic Council, where Furman has been serving as Deputy Director since January 2009. But it’s important to step back and remember that economic policy in recent years has been principally driven not by well-qualified economists with the CEA, NEC, or elsewhere in the executive branch, but instead by conservative congressional obstructionism. Jason Furman’s appointment to the CEA will not alter the troubling reality that the United States is on an autopilot course of premature, excessive austerity and intentionally poorly designed sequestration spending cuts. But even if the ghost of conservative saint Milton Friedman rose up and warned the GOP against such austerity, today’s conservatives in Congress would declare him an apostate and continue their destructive course.
Consequently, the U.S. economy will almost certainly continue muddling through an adverse equilibrium of anemic growth, severely depressed output, massive underemployment, large cyclical budget deficits, subdued price inflation, widespread real wage deflation and low interest rates. It’s really quite simple: a steep aggregate demand shortfall continues to keep the economy’s performance well below potential, and the Federal Reserve has been and will continue to be incapable of fully ameliorating this shortfall so long as contractionary fiscal policy is being pursued. (See this paper for a thorough treatment.)
In short, the intellectual debate over austerity vs. stimulus has been totally decoupled from the policy debate and, more importantly, policy outcomes in Washington—despite having been resolved in a virtual TKO by those opposed to foisting austerity on depressed economies. The United States doesn’t face, or, perhaps more accurately, no longer faces a deficit of economists capable of opening up an intermediate macroeconomics textbook and relearning liquidity trap/depression economics. But the U.S. Congress faces a depressing deficit of members who seem to care about empiricism or evidence-based policy, never mind their unemployed constituents.
My colleague Josh Bivens and I have chronicled the ways the GOP has routinely and frequently obstructed economic recovery since 2009—much of which should inform any debate this summer regarding much needed reform of the Senate’s filibuster rules, as well as the inevitable political fight over the debt ceiling. Conservatives, particularly the Tea Party caucus, are to blame for exploiting every piece of leverage available (including the nation’s credit worthiness) to extract premature spending cuts, filibustering just about anything that would boost aggregate demand, watering down the Recovery Act, hamstringing monetary policy and demanding counterproductive legislative ‘pay fors’—stipulated to never, ever include revenue increases. The frequently espoused pox-on-both houses punditry is not just off-base, but is also somewhat complicit in this sad state of affairs.
Does it matter who advises the president? Absolutely. But the distressing state of the U.S. economy is, at root, a failure of our representative democracy and institutions to hold Congress accountable for its decisions preventing economic recovery, not a failure of technical advice given to the president. Realistically, the Constitution and budgetary process outlook afford the administration scant leverage to force more deficit-financed government spending, the most effective policy lever for digging out of this Lesser Depression. Under this backdrop, the United States needs more than qualified economic advisers to the president—a majority of representatives and (barring meaningful filibuster reform) super-majority of senators who heed evidence, as well as a press corps holding them accountable, jump to mind.
By: Andrew Fieldhouse, Economic Policy Institute, May 29, 2013
So, about that fiscal crisis — the one that would, any day now, turn us into Greece. Greece, I tell you: Never mind.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a remarkable change of position among the deficit scolds who have dominated economic policy debate for more than three years. It’s as if someone sent out a memo saying that the Chicken Little act, with its repeated warnings of a U.S. debt crisis that keeps not happening, has outlived its usefulness. Suddenly, the argument has changed: It’s not about the crisis next month; it’s about the long run, about not cheating our children. The deficit, we’re told, is really a moral issue.
There’s just one problem: The new argument is as bad as the old one. Yes, we are cheating our children, but the deficit has nothing to do with it.
Before I get there, a few words about the sudden switch in arguments.
There has, of course, been no explicit announcement of a change in position. But the signs are everywhere. Pundits who spent years trying to foster a sense of panic over the deficit have begun writing pieces lamenting the likelihood that there won’t be a crisis, after all. Maybe it wasn’t that significant when President Obama declared that we don’t face any “immediate” debt crisis, but it did represent a change in tone from his previous deficit-hawk rhetoric. And it was startling, indeed, when John Boehner, the speaker of the House, said exactly the same thing a few days later.
What happened? Basically, the numbers refuse to cooperate: Interest rates remain stubbornly low, deficits are declining and even 10-year budget projections basically show a stable fiscal outlook rather than exploding debt.
So talk of a fiscal crisis has subsided. Yet the deficit scolds haven’t given up on their determination to bully the nation into slashing Social Security and Medicare. So they have a new line: We must bring down the deficit right away because it’s “generational warfare,” imposing a crippling burden on the next generation.
What’s wrong with this argument? For one thing, it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what debt does to the economy.
Contrary to almost everything you read in the papers or see on TV, debt doesn’t directly make our nation poorer; it’s essentially money we owe to ourselves. Deficits would indirectly be making us poorer if they were either leading to big trade deficits, increasing our overseas borrowing, or crowding out investment, reducing future productive capacity. But they aren’t: Trade deficits are down, not up, while business investment has actually recovered fairly strongly from the slump. And the main reason businesses aren’t investing more is inadequate demand. They’re sitting on lots of cash, despite soaring profits, because there’s no reason to expand capacity when you aren’t selling enough to use the capacity you have. In fact, you can think of deficits mainly as a way to put some of that idle cash to use.
Yet there is, as I said, a lot of truth to the charge that we’re cheating our children. How? By neglecting public investment and failing to provide jobs.
You don’t have to be a civil engineer to realize that America needs more and better infrastructure, but the latest “report card” from the American Society of Civil Engineers — with its tally of deficient dams, bridges, and more, and its overall grade of D+ — still makes startling and depressing reading. And right now — with vast numbers of unemployed construction workers and vast amounts of cash sitting idle — would be a great time to rebuild our infrastructure. Yet public investment has actually plunged since the slump began.
Or what about investing in our young? We’re cutting back there, too, having laid off hundreds of thousands of school teachers and slashed the aid that used to make college affordable for children of less-affluent families.
Last but not least, think of the waste of human potential caused by high unemployment among younger Americans — for example, among recent college graduates who can’t start their careers and will probably never make up the lost ground.
And why are we shortchanging the future so dramatically and inexcusably? Blame the deficit scolds, who weep crocodile tears over the supposed burden of debt on the next generation, but whose constant inveighing against the risks of government borrowing, by undercutting political support for public investment and job creation, has done far more to cheat our children than deficits ever did.
Fiscal policy is, indeed, a moral issue, and we should be ashamed of what we’re doing to the next generation’s economic prospects. But our sin involves investing too little, not borrowing too much — and the deficit scolds, for all their claims to have our children’s interests at heart, are actually the bad guys in this story.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 28, 2013
Have American liberals moved too far to the left? That’s long been the contention of conservatives contemplating liberal positions on a host of social issues, such as gay marriage and the legalization of undocumented immigrants. But opinion polls on these issues show that yesterday’s far-out liberal positions are quickly becoming today’s conventional wisdom.
A more nuanced conservative critique focuses on liberals’ support for a greater government role in the economy. To be sure, New York Times columnist David Brooks argued in a recent column, liberals have traditionally urged government to take up the slack in economic activity during recessions, but now, as the budget proposal of the Congressional Progressive Caucus shows, liberals believe that “government is the source of growth, job creation and prosperity” even when the economy has righted itself. The progressives’ budget, Brooks complains, proposes spending $450 billion on public works and sending $179 billion to the states so they, too, can provide more services and pave more roads. All this and more would be financed by increases in progressive taxation — draining the private sector of the capital it needs to grow, hire and produce prosperity.
Not surprisingly, liberal economists have jumped on Brooks’s arguments. Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute argues that the economy is still performing so under par — $985 billion below its potential output if all our factories were going full tilt — that it needs a major boost from government-financed economic activity to increase production, employment and consumption. Coincidentally, the day after Brooks’s column was published, Gallup released a poll showing that 72 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, would support a major federally financed infrastructure repair program and a federal program creating 1 million jobs. Nearly 80 years after Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, it seems the American people would like the government to re-create it.
But there’s a bigger problem with the conservative contention that government stands athwart the private sector’s capacity to create jobs and prosperity: It fails to acknowledge that the private sector no longer creates jobs and prosperity like it used to, completely apart from whatever effects governmental policy may have on job creation. Entirely on their own and well before Obamacare was a gleam in anyone’s eye, employers began cutting back or altogether dropping health coverage and retirement benefits for employees. Nor have government regulations compelled employers to increase the share of company revenue going to profits (which is at its highest level in decades) and reduce the share going to wages (which is at its lowest level in decades).
The U.S. corporations that make up the Standard & Poor’s index of the 500 largest publicly traded companies get almost half their revenue from sales abroad, according to a 2011 S&P analysis, and, despite all the hoopla about bringing manufacturing back to the States, much of their production is going to remain abroad. The rise of machines has, we all know, taken its toll on employment too. U.S. corporations are sitting on $1.7 trillion in cash, with share values and profits that render most of these businesses’ leaders happy campers. Even if the U.S. economy continues to fall far short of full employment, and even if the rate of workforce participation continues to decline, these businesses can still sell their products all over the world. Unlike in the 1930s, the shortfall in domestic consumption does not present them with a crisis but with perhaps nothing worse than a missed opportunity.
In short, the economy is working for our economic elites. The massive changes they would have to make to investment strategies and the division of corporate revenue so that the economy worked for the majority of the American people are nowhere on the horizon. The great growth machine that once was the U.S. private sector ain’t what it used to be — which is one reason each recession since 1990 has been longer, deeper and more intractable than the last. That’s the new economic reality in this country, and that’s what the budget of the Congressional Progressive Caucus responds to. It’s not that liberals have been prompted to move leftward through the readings of ancient socialist gospels or by smoking some stash left over from the ’60s. It’s that the economy has reached a dismal stability far short of its full employment potential or renewing the promise of widespread prosperity, and government investment is required to make up the difference. If anyone is smoking something, it is conservatives who foresee a rebirth of prosperity if only the private sector is left alone.
By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 21, 2013
FDR placed the needs of the American people above petty budgetary concerns, but today’s leaders lack his courage and vision.
In 1933 we reversed the policy of the previous Administration. For the first time since the depression you had a Congress and an Administration in Washington which had the courage to provide the necessary resources which private interests no longer had or no longer dared to risk.
This cost money. We knew, and you knew, in March, 1933, that it would cost money. We knew, and you knew, that it would cost money for several years to come. The people understood that in 1933. They understood it in 1934, when they gave the Administration a full endorsement of its policy. They knew in 1935, and they know in 1936, that the plan is working.—FDR, 1936
Eighty years ago this month, at the height of the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on his promise to launch a New Deal for the American people. Not wedded to any one program, idea, or ideology, the New Deal was founded on the very simple premise that when the free market failed to provide basic economic security for the average American, government had a responsibility to provide that security. In Roosevelt’s day, this meant imposing the first-ever meaningful regulation of the stock market, shoring up the nation’s financial system by guaranteeing private deposits and separating commercial from investment banking, and providing jobs to the millions of unemployed through government expenditures on infrastructure. The Roosevelt administration also launched the country’s first nationwide program of unemployment insurance to help the unemployed bridge the gap between jobs as well as Social Security to ensure that the elderly, after years of work and toil, would not suddenly find themselves utterly destitute.
Conservative critics of FDR’s polices say that these programs did not work—that unemployment remained high throughout the 1930s and that it was only World War II that brought us out of the Great Depression. As such, these same critics continually argue that the deficit spending that fueled the New Deal was the root cause of its inability to bring the unemployment rate down to acceptable levels. In short, they argue that government spending and government programs do not work, and that only the free market can provide the economic stimulus necessary to get the economy back on its feet again.
But as is the case today with the naysayers on climate change, the empirical evidence suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. During FDR’s first term, for example, the average annual growth rate for the U.S. economy was 11 percent. Compare that to the paltry 0.8 percent we witnessed in the first term of the Obama administration. The nationwide unemployment rate also fell, from its all-time high of 25 percent in 1933 to 14 percent by 1935, which at the time represented the largest and fastest drop in unemployment in our nation’s history.
But far more damning to the conservative critique is the argument that tries to invalidate the New Deal by positing that it was World War II and not the relief programs of the 1930s that brought us out of the Great Depression. Conservatives love to trumpet this fact and often use it as part of their argument against deficit spending, never stopping for a moment to consider that government expenditures—and deficits—in World War II made the New Deal look like small potatoes. In fact, deficit spending in the New Deal never topped 6 percent of GNP, while in World War II it ran as high as 28 percent. In other words, World War II was the New Deal on steroids. Viewed from this perspective, it is FDR’s critics on the left—not the right—who possess the stronger argument. The problem with the New Deal was that it did not go far enough. In other words, the government should have spent more money, not less, if it was going to be successful in bringing the economic crisis to an end.
All this is not to say that free enterprise is incapable of producing economic growth—it most certainly is. But there are times when capitalism, left to its own devices, can fail. Franklin Roosevelt was willing to acknowledge this, and he spent the better part of his tenure in office trying to put in place programs that would make capitalism work for the average American, not just those at the top. Hence, his agenda was not to subvert or destroy the free market system, but rather to save it.
It took vision and courage to launch the New Deal—the vision to understand that when the free market systems falls short or fails, government has a responsibility to take direct measures to get the economy moving again, and the courage to engage in deficit spending at a time when orthodox economic theory argued that the only proper response to an economic recession or depression was to slash government spending and balance the budget.
Unfortunately, the leadership we possess in Washington today lacks the vision and the courage to follow FDR’s example and put in place the sort of common-sense programs that would stimulate the economy and put people back to work. Instead of providing jobs for millions by spending money on our failing infrastructure—now ranked 24th in the world—or investing in programs that would reverse the falling education rates of our children, or providing greater federal support for the basic scientific research that may unlock untold benefits for future generations, we instead speak of nothing but the deficit and the sequester, as if cutting spending in the midst of recession is the magic bullet that will lead us out of our economic malaise.
Franklin Roosevelt faced similar critics, who, much like today’s deficit hawks, insisted that he must cut spending and balance the budget no matter what the consequences for the average American. But FDR would have none of this. “To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935,” he said,
would have been a crime against the American people. To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.
As it turns out, FDR’s decision to put “humanity first” was not only the right moral decision, it was also the right economic decision. For the deficit spending that he finally unleashed in World War II, coupled with the social and economic reforms put in place during the New Deal, led to one of the longest periods of economic prosperity in America’s history and the birth of the modern American middle class.
Sadly, all of the evidence to date suggests that our leaders in Washington are quite happy “to pass by on the other side” and let the sequester proceed without so much as a fight. With roughly 16 million people across the country still unemployed, this is surely “a crime against the American people.”
By: David Woolner, The National Memo, March 3, 2013