Since you asked…

This is a time of the year when I meet new people or get reacquainted with old friends, and once we run out of the usual “status update” conversation, someone often asks about the economy and the current crisis about the debt ceiling. I’m going to break a self-imposed guideline for this blog, and actually represent my opinions in a pretty straightforward manner. Usually my goal is to help students reach their own, informed opinion. This time – straight to the punch line…

1. The 2011 deficit (estimated at $1.5 trillion) and the accumulated national debt (over $14.3 trillion) are not the most pressing economic issues facing the country right now. They are important, but several notches down from the top of the list. This year’s deficit is just over 10% of GDP, which is high, but not crushing. There are ways to deal with these issues, as I’ll share further down. They are presented as a crisis only because the Republican Party and the Tea Party are using them to push a small government agenda. While I don’t agree with that goal, it’s fine for some to support it, but holding the economy hostage by manufacturing a crisis tied around the debt ceiling makes no sense.
2. Investment in economic growth has slowed dramatically. This is particularly true in education – at all levels. It is also true in basic research. Up until the last 20 years or so the U.S. has surfed the wave of economic change, by investing in new thinkers, and making infrastructure and other investments that will improve productivity. These seem left out of current debate options.

3. The slow recovery and weak demand for goods and services is the number one problem facing the country. The Federal stimulus is winding down, the Federal Reserve has decided that they don’t need more quantitative easing, and government at all levels is cutting employment. All the while personal consumption dropped in the most recent quarter, along with the fixed asset portion of Investment (inventories increased as a partial offset.) The uptick in unemployment and the very slow growth in employment drags down demand for goods and services. We are sliding down the same hill that the U.S. economy did in 1937-38, when Congress and President Roosevelt worried more about public concern for the debt than about sustained growth. Then we slid into a quick, nasty recession. That’s a danger now, too.
4. Inflation is not a pressing problem. The inflation we have seen this year is in food/commodities and energy. The food price spiral might well continue for awhile – I don’t have an independent sense of the true drivers. Even if food prices rise there are other elements of the Consumer Price Index that are holding steady. The rising energy prices are probably related to uncertainty about political conditions in the Middle East. Those concerns should soften soon. Inflation is something to watch out for, particularly with all of the money created by the Federal Reserve in the last three years – money created to help stabilize the economy. It is important that the Fed watch for signs of incipient inflation, driven by very high money supply, but I am confident they will act correctly and aggressively when that happens. That point is not now.
5. Bond investors are not abandoning US Treasuries for fear of default. US bonds respond to typical market forces, though they have an element of future gazing in them. If you hold a 10 year bond, and a potential buyer thinks the US might default on that bond, then the buyer will expect a higher yield (lower price/higher interest rate). That isn’t happening now. The bond market for US Treasuries is not showing signs of investors being worried about US debt.

So, what to do….

1. To tackle the most pressing problem – the slow recovery – the Federal government should be stimulating demand, through more government spending (on the part of Congress) and more quantitative easing (on the part of the Federal Reserve). Tax cuts can be part of this but they should not be across the board. The most effective, stimulative tax cut on the Federal level is the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare. Those funds need help, and there are ways to fix them, but a payroll tax benefits mostly working people who will use the increased take home pay to consume.
2. To help with the deficit, we should remove the Bush tax cuts, and speed our exit from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush tax cuts disproportionately benefited higher income families, who use the extra money for non-consumption activities. When some politicians complain that raising taxes on the wealthy takes money away from job creators, there is no empirical evidence and scant theoretical basis for that claim. Along with repealing those tax cuts there are plenty of opportunities to strengthen the tax code and reduce the dreaded loopholes. Despite what many politicians say and the media parrot, this is not hard. It just takes clear headed thinking and political courage.
3. The real budget deficit challenge, at the Federal and State levels primarily, is the cost of healthcare. Increasing costs and inefficient uses of services put pressure on Medicare, Medicaid (which impacts states as well), the VA, the Dept. of Defense, and government employment costs at all levels. We should be strengthening and extending the healthcare reform efforts beyond just extending coverage – to include incentives for cost efficiency and efficacious treatments.

4. Restore and enhance funding for education at all levels. Resist the temptation to make education accountable on a short term basis, while hobbling it from producing the long term benefits derived from basic research and liberal arts education. This is an area in particular where Federal spending, even if they result in deficits, is a good investment. Cutting taxes on the wealthy is not a good use of a deficit. Deficit spending should support short term stimulative needs and long term productivity enhancements.

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