Tag: economy

‘Mountain of Debt’

The White House Office of Management and Budget homepage currently features the following quote from the president:

President Obama says he wants to “invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt.”

That’s a curious statement because the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the president’s current budget proposal projects that publicly held debt as a share of the economy would reach levels last seen at the end of the Second World War.

When the CBO’s numbers are plugged into a bar chart, the projected Obama debt levels (red bars) look like…the upward slope of a mountain (!):

To be fair, Obama’s predecessors – particularly the previous Bush administration – share in the responsibility for the mountainous rise in federal debt. However, that’s all the more reason for the Obama administration to work toward a peak instead of a steeper incline.

Federal Government Is a Lucrative ‘Industry’

The Bureau of Economic Analysis latest release of industry compensation levels shows that the average federal worker ranks up at the top along with employees in the finance and energy industries. That’s not exactly popular company these days.

The BEA presents compensation data for 72 industries that span the U.S. economy. Figure 1 shows the 20 industries with the highest levels of average compensation, which includes wages and benefits. It also shows the average for all U.S. private industries and the average for the industry with the lowest compensation. (The names of the industries have been simplified in some cases).

Federal civilian workers have the sixth highest average compensation of the 72 industries:

As yesterday’s post showed, federal employee compensation has exploded over the course of the decade. Figure 2 shows that this federal employee compensation growth has been the fifth highest of the 72 industries measured by the BEA:

Democrats Ignore 80% of Workers in Service Sector

In a bid to revive their sagging election prospects, congressional Democrats have hit on the theme of promoting domestic U.S. manufacturing. As a front-page story in the Washington Post reports today, the party has adopted the bumper-sticker slogan, “Make It in America.”

I’m all for making things in America, when it makes economic sense to do so. But the Democratic plan opens a window for all sorts of government intervention, including trade barriers, higher taxes on U.S.-owned affiliates abroad, and subsidies for “clean energy” and make-work infrastructure projects.

The campaign relies on two major but faulty assumptions: That U.S. manufacturing is in deep trouble, and that creating more manufacturing jobs is the key to prosperity. Neither assumption is true.

As I explained in a Washington Times column yesterday:

Despite worries about “de-industrialization,” America remains a global manufacturing power. Our nation leads the world in manufacturing “value-added,” the value of what we produce domestically after subtracting imported components. The volume of domestic manufacturing output, according to the Federal Reserve Board, has rebounded by 8 percent from the recession lows of a year ago. Even after the Great Recession, U.S. manufacturing output remains 50 percent higher than what it was two decades ago in the era before NAFTA and the WTO.

Manufacturing jobs have been in decline for 30 years, not because of declining production, but because remaining workers are so much more productive.

Again, I’m all for manufacturing jobs supported by a free market, but members of Congress need to wake up to the reality that America today is a middle-class service economy. As I wrote in the column yesterday:

More than 80 percent of Americans earn their living in the service sector, including a broad swath of the middle class gainfully employed in education, health care, finance, and business and professional occupations.

It is one of the big lies of the trade debate that manufacturing jobs are being replaced by low-paying service jobs. Since the early 1990s, two-thirds of the net new jobs created have been in service sectors where the average pay is higher than in manufacturing. Members of Congress who belittle the service sector are ignoring the interests of a large majority of their constituents.

Congress and the president should focus on economic policies that promote overall economic growth, not policies that favor one sector of the economy over all the others.

Paul Krugman and Regime Uncertainty

Paul Krugman dismisses concerns that the Obama administration’s fiscal and regulatory policies are fostering uncertainty in the business community, and thus inhibiting job growth and an economic recovery.

My Cato colleagues and I have been citing this “regime uncertainty” for a while now, and it is gaining mainstream acceptance as evidenced by a recent Washington Post editorial.

I have pointed to surveys of small businesses conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business. The businesses surveyed continually cite the combination of government taxes and regulations as their “single most important problem.”

However, Krugman looks at the NFIB’s most recent survey and comes away with a different conclusion:

Or read through the latest survey of small business trends by the National Federation for Independent Business, an advocacy group. The commentary at the front of the report is largely a diatribe against government — “Washington is applying leeches and performing blood-letting as a cure” — and you might naïvely imagine that this diatribe reflects what the surveyed businesses said. But while a few businesses declared that the political climate was deterring expansion, they were vastly outnumbered by those citing a poor economy.

This is the chart from the survey that Krugman is referencing:

Considering the depth and length of the recession, the fact that “economic condition” is the runaway leader isn’t surprising. But I wonder how many of the businesses citing “economic conditions” are happy with the “political climate.” I doubt very many. Notice that zero respondents said that the political climate was a “good time” to expand. Couple that with the plurality who said this isn’t a good time to expand due to economic conditions and you get an indictment of the administration’s interventionist policies that Krugman has supported.

Krugman continues:

The charts at the back of the report, showing trends in business perceptions of their “most important problem,” are even more revealing. It turns out that business is less concerned about taxes and regulation than during the 1990s, an era of booming investment. Concerns about poor sales, on the other hand, have surged. The weak economy, not fear about government actions, is what’s holding investment down.

Interestingly, Krugman ignores the chart that immediately precedes the trends in business perceptions: the “single most important problem” respondents currently face. It is definitely more revealing:

Thirty percent of respondents said their single most important problem is “Poor Sales.” “Taxes” and “Government Regulations and Red Tape” come in second and third place at 22 percent and 13 percent respectively. Combining the two, the biggest problem facing small businesses according to respondents is government.

Krugman waves the government problem away by pointing out that taxes and regulations ranked higher in the 1990s when the economy was strong. However, he ignores the trend. Concern about taxes and regulations trended lower as the 1990s moved into the 2000s, but have been trending higher in the last couple of years.

Take a look at the trend chart that includes taxes:

The tax outlook improved as the Clinton and Bush administrations cut taxes and the federal budget was brought under control. Rising tax concerns could be explained by future expectations of higher taxes to pay for Bush and Obama’s profligacy. Additionally, states have been raising taxes during the recession to make up for budget shortfalls. Future expectations of higher taxes to pay for the unfunded liabilities of state and local employee benefits could also be a consideration.

Also note how much higher taxes rank than financing. Yet, it seems that most media outlets believe credit unavailability is the chief problem facing businesses. Indeed, the president has been pushing a $30 billion package to increase lending to small businesses. But businesses don’t need more subsidized credit backed by taxpayers — they need relief from the president’s agenda.

Active Government, Passive Economy

Today, Politico Arena asks a second question:

What does Obama need to do on jobs?

My response:

What does Obama need to do on jobs? Asked about that in his Arena interview today, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) answers, “The best thing we could do is encourage banks to lend money.” Encourage them? Banks don’t need to be encouraged: if they can make money by lending it, they will. But that’s just the problem. The regulatory climate under Obama is so uncertain that capital isn’t moving. Andrews adds that “we need to stimulate,” as if we hadn’t already massively stimulated with little to show but massive debt.  And he says that “the Wall Street reform bill will help.” Apparently he hasn’t read Stanford economist John B. Taylor’s analysis in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, which concludes: “People may be waking up to the fact that the bill does not do what its supporters claim. It does not prevent future financial crises. Rather, it makes them more likely and in the meantime impedes economic growth.”

Two Cheers for the U.S. Economy

Two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal deal with the housing sector.  They complement each other. Journal reporters note that “Industry Speeds Recovery, And Housing Slows It Down.”  The story notes that that “ground-breaking for new homes and applications for building permits both plunged last month.”  Meanwhile, U.S. industrial output showed strong growth in May.

Bravo for both numbers, which are inter-related.  The headline (over which reporters have no control) reflects conceptual confusion.  U.S. industrial production is strong at least in part because construction of new homes is weak.   The bloated home sector is no longer absorbing a disproportionate share of economic resources.  The new homeowners tax credit has mercifully expired, ending that bit of misguided stimulus.

David Wessel’s article, “Rethinking Home Ownership,” further clarifies the reallocation of resources taking place in the U.S. economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government adopted a number of policies to stimulate home ownership.  As Wessel makes clear, it was a bipartisan effort.  Home ownership rates rose from around 65% to a peak of 69.4% in 2004.  It was an unsustainable policy, a true asset bubble.

Home ownership rates have now fallen back to where they began, or even below.  The experience of the 1990s and early 2000s in housing demonstrates why government stimulus is not a permanent source of demand, nor the path to sustainable economic growth. Lest we forget, the folly of these programs is measured not just in housing numbers, but in shattered dreams and hopes and ruined lives. And the terrible financial crisis to which these programs contributed

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.