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The Regulatory Charade

Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh, writing in The Wall Street Journal, highlight the dearth of business investment over the last eight years. (WSJ)

Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh, writing in The Wall Street Journal, highlight the dearth of business investment over the last eight years. (WSJ)

Unless we address the growth of the Administrative State, it will continue to stifle growth in the real economy. As you can see in the chart above, this recovery has suffered, among other maladies, from the weakest business investment of any recent expansion. The weakest by far. A number of factors may be at play — monetary policy, global turmoil, bad corporate tax policy, the nature of the last downturn, etc. But it’s not a stretch to conclude that a major factor in the economy’s underperformance is growing bureaucratic interference with economic activity. One study estimates that regulation costs the economy $1.88 trillion per year, and another study puts the cost to the economy into the tens of trillions of dollars. As bureaucratic excursions into firms and industries grow, and as the costs so manifestly outweigh the benefits, the agencies’ rationales for regulatory control become ever more creative.

A good example comes from Susan Dudley of George Washington University, who studies environmental regulation. She describes a clearly political decision cloaked as “science.”

The Environmental Protection Agency published its final national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for ozone in the Federal Register on Monday.  EPA emphasizes that “Setting air quality standards is about protecting public health and the environment. By law, EPA cannot consider costs in doing that.”  The agency did prepare a regulatory impact analysis (RIA) to comply with presidential executive orders 12866 and 13563, but it is explicit that “although an RIA has been prepared, the results of the RIA have not been considered in issuing this final rule.”

The results of the RIA, however, were featured prominently in EPA’s press release.  According to the release, “The public health benefits of the updated standards, estimated at $2.9 to $5.9 billion annually in 2025, outweigh the estimated annual costs of $1.4 billion.”  EPA’s fact sheet relies on the RIA to assert that meeting the new 70 parts per billion (ppb) standard will avoid 320 to 660 premature deaths each year.

Nonetheless, the 480-page RIA suggests that these health benefits pale in comparison to the benefits that achieving a more stringent 65 ppb standard would bring.  According to EPA’s models, a standard of 65 ppb would avoid between 1,590 and 3,320 premature deaths. (This does not include California.)

There are ample reasons to question EPA’s ozone health benefit estimates but the fact is, the agency’s own analysis claims that the more stringent 65 ppb standard would have saved an additional 1,274 to 2,660 lives per year, and avoided an additional 2,670 emergency room visits and almost 1,300 hospital admissions.

If, as EPA says, “the Act requires [it] to base the decision for the primary standard on health considerations only; economic factors cannot be considered,” how can it reconcile setting a standard that leaves so many lives unprotected?

EPA cannot openly admit that its decision was influenced by the enormous costs of achieving the tighter standard.  (Chapter 4 of the RIA acknowledges that no known measures are available to achieve either of the standards EPA considered, but estimates that a 65 ppb standard would impose costs of $16 billion per year – more than 10 times the estimated $1.4 billion per year cost of achieving a 70 ppb standard.)

It’s obvious that EPA did consider the gigantic cost, and Dudley concluded:

It’s time to stop the charade that it is wise or even possible to base NAAQS purely on health considerations.  There are very real tradeoffs involved in these policy decisions that deserve open and transparent debate, rather than the pretense that they can be made by considering only science.

Another example from the environmental arena is the never-ending Keystone XL saga, in which various bureaucracies have for seven years pretended to “study the impact assessments” while blocking the project. Almost no one even argues anymore that this is anything but a political football designed to pacify narrow constituencies and raise campaign money. And yet billions of dollars in potential investment and thousands of jobs are put off.

It is impossible to insulate executive and even independent agencies from all politics. Let’s be realistic. And yet emboldened bureaucrats are increasingly dispensing with even the pretense of expertise, fair play, and the rule of law.

In recent years, the Federal Communications Commission, a nominally “independent expert agency,” has descended into the political swamp. In the most famous case, one year ago, just after the 2014 elections, the FCC collapsed in the face of a subversive White House campaign to write new regulations governing the Internet, one of the most important and innovative sectors of the economy. The FCC had been heading in one policy direction, but at the last second, after years of consideration, a small team of non-expert political operatives in the White House (in cahoots with a few FCC insiders who, it turns out, were also orchestrating outside political activists) twisted Chairman Tom Wheeler’s arm, and the White House got its favored policy. Never mind that all of this was illegal —  Congress had told the FCC 20 years ago the Internet was to remain “unfettered by Federal and State regulation.”

Last week, one of Chairman Wheelers’s senior advisors spoke to an industry group and once again asked them to go on a political campaign in favor of even more regulation of the communications sector. As Light Reading reported,

Ideally, Sohn [Wheeler’s senior advisor] said, the same kind of consumer activism that helped drive the Open Internet rule changes earlier this year — including pickets at Wheeler’s home and the White House, and widespread TV coverage — could be brought to bear on some of the more arcane issues, such as special access and IP transition rules.

So senior staff at “independent expert” agencies, who make economic rules and enforce technology standards in highly technical sectors of the economy, are now urging political activists to go to the home of the agency chairman to bank pots and pans and urge specific policies — invariably tilted toward more regulation.

In a possible silver lining, the assertiveness of regulatory and expert agencies is exposing fundamental flaws in the Administrative State. So egregious is the behavior, so overt and obvious is the politicization, so damaging is the impact on the economy, that the agencies — long political tools but not recognized as such — are earning the scrutiny that could lead to a revolution of sorts.

Steven Davis of the University of Chicago describes the size of the problem — a Code of Federal Regulations now 175,000 pages long, for example — here. Charles Murray describes the nature of the regulatory charade and a possible political solution  here. John Cochrane of UChicago and the Hoover Institution outlines the impact of regulatory insanity on economic growth here. I’ve looked at the impact on economic growth here and suggested that, in the cases where regulation is needed, it’s imperative to “Keep It Simple.”

John Cochrane on Economic Growth

We’ve been hammering for years on the importance of reinvigorating economic growth, and John Cochrane of the University of Chicago has put lots of the key ideas, big and small, in one new paper. Enjoy.

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Finally, a robust discussion of economic growth

I’m delighted to see the robust discussion breaking out over the urgent need to reignite the U.S. economy. The impetus seems to be Jeb Bush’s call last week to implement policies that would boost the U.S. growth rate to 4%, at least for several years. A number of economists and journalists said Bush’s 4% goal was impossible. But others say nonsense; of course we can do much better than we have over the last decade. See Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Warsh, for example, in The Wall Street Journal today. Jon Hartley follows up here. Michael Solon wrote an excellent piece back in February. And John Taylor has been urging the same here and here.

Here’s a selection of my own research and commentary on the topic over the last five years:

THE GROWTH IMPERATIVE — Forbes — May 27, 2011
The Growth Imperative — Slides — Presentation to U.S. Chamber — May 24, 2011

More evidence against Internet regulation: the huge U.S.-European broadband gap

In its effort to regulate the Internet, the Federal Communications Commission is swimming upstream against a flood of evidence. The latest data comes from Fred Campbell and the Internet Innovation Alliance, showing the startling disparities between the mostly unregulated and booming U.S. broadband market, and the more heavily regulated and far less innovative European market. In November, we showed this gap using the measure of Internet traffic. Here, Campbell compares levels of investment and competitive choice (see chart below). The bottom line is that the U.S. invests around four times as much in its wired broadband networks and about twice as much in wireless. It’s not even close. Why would the U.S. want to drop America’s hugely successful model in favor of “President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet,” which is even more restrictive and intrusive than Europe’s?

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Broadband facts: GON with the wind

See below our post from TechPolicyDaily.com responding to President Obama’s January 14 speech in Iowa. We’ve added some additional notes at the bottom of the post.

Yesterday, President Obama visited Cedar Falls, Iowa, to promote government-run broadband networks. On Tuesday, he gave a preview of the speech from the Oval Office. We need to help cities and towns build their own networks, he said, because the US has fallen behind the rest of the world. He pointed to a chart on his iPad, which showed many big US cities trailing Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul in broadband speeds. Amazingly, however, some small US towns with government-owned broadband networks matched these world leaders with their taxpayer-funded deployment of gigabit broadband.

I wish I could find a more polite way to say this, but the President’s chart is utter nonsense. Most Parisians do not enjoy Gigabit broadband. Neither do most residents of Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Seoul, which do in fact participate in healthy broadband markets. Perhaps most importantly, neither do most of the citizens of American towns, like Cedar Falls, Chattanooga, or Lafayette, which are the supposed nirvanas of government-run broadband.*

The chart, which is based on a fundamentally flawed report, and others like it, deliberately obscures the true state of broadband around the world. As my AEI colleagues and I have shown, by the most important and systematic measures, the US not only doesn’t lag, it leads. The US, for example, generates two to three times the Internet traffic (per capita and per Internet user) of the most advanced European and Asian nations. (more…)

Commissioner Pai’s Netflix letter exposes fundamental flaws of Internet regulation

Combatants in the Net Neutrality wars often seem to talk past each other. Sometimes it’s legitimate miscommunication. More often, though, it arises from fundamental defects in the concept itself.

On December 2, Commissioner Ajit Pai wrote to Netflix, Inc., saying he “was surprised to learn of allegations that Netflix has been working to effectively secure ‘fast lanes’ for its own content on ISPs’ networks at the expense of its competitors.” Commissioner Pai noted press accounts that suggested Netflix’s Open Connect content delivery platform and its use of specialized video streaming protocols put video from non-Netflix sources at a disadvantage. Commissioner Pai concluded that “these allegations raise an apparent conflict with Netflix’s advocacy of strong net neutrality regulations” and thus asked for an explanation.

In its reply of December 11, Netflix made four basic points. Netflix (1) said it “designed Open Connect content delivery network (CDN) to provide consumers with a high-quality video experience”; (2) insisted “Open Connect is not a fast lane . . . . Open Connect helps ISPs reduce costs and better manage congestion, which results in a better Internet experience for all end users”; (3) said it “uses open-source software and readily-available hardware components”; and (4) applauded other firms for developing open video caching standards but “has focused” on its own proprietary system because it is more efficient and customer friendly than the collaborative industry efforts.

Three of Netflix’s four points are reasonable, as far as they go. The company is developing technologies and architectures to improve customer service and beat the competition. The firm, however, seems not to grasp Commissioner Pai’s central point: Netflix relishes aggressive competition on its own behalf but wants to outlaw similarly innovative behavior from the rest of the Internet economy.

(more…)

Phone Company Screws Everyone: Forces Rural Simpletons and Elderly Into Broadband, Locks Young Suburbanites in Copper Cage

Big companies must often think, damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

Netflix-Comcast Coverage

See our coverage of Comcast-Netflix, which really began before any deal was announced. Two weeks ago we wrote about the stories that Netflix traffic had slowed, and we suggested a more plausible explanation (interconnection disputes negotiations) than the initial suspicion (so called “throttling”). Soon after, we released a short paper, long in the works, describing “How the Net Works” — a brief history of interconnection and peering. And this week we wrote about it all at TechPolicyDaily, Forbes, and USNews.

Netflix, Verizon, and the Interconnection Question – TechPolicyDaily.com – February 13, 2014

How the Net Works: A Brief History of Internet Interconnection – Entropy Economics – February 21, 2014

Comcast, Netflix Prove Internet Is Working – TechPolicyDaily.com – February 24, 2014

Netflix, Comcast Hook Up Sparks Web Drama – Forbes.com – February 26, 2014

Comcast, Netflix and the Future of the Internet – U.S. News & World Report – February 27, 2014

— Bret Swanson

Reaction to “net neutrality” ruling

My AEI tech policy colleagues and I discussed today’s net neutrality ruling, which upheld the FCC’s basic ability to oversee broadband but vacated the two major, specific regulations.

Federal Court strikes down FCC “net neutrality” order

Today, the D.C. Federal Appeals Court struck down the FCC’s “net neutrality” regulations, arguing the agency cannot regulate the Internet as a “common carrier” (that is, the way we used to regulate telephones). Here, from a pre-briefing I and several AEI colleagues did for reporters yesterday, is a summary of my statement:

Chairman Wheeler has emphasized importance of Open Internet. We agree. The Internet is more open than ever — we’ve got more people, connected via more channels and more devices, to more content and more services than ever. And we will continue to enjoy an Open Internet because it benefits all involved — consumers, BSPs, content companies, software and device makers.

Chairman Wheeler has also emphasized recently that he believes innovation in multi-sided markets is important. At his Ohio State speech, he said we should allow experimentation, and when pressed on this apparent endorsement of multi-sided market innovation, he did not back down.

The AT&T “sponsored data” is a good example of such multi-sided market innovation, but one that many Net Neutrality supporters say violates NN. Sponsored Data, in which a content firm might pay for a portion of the data used by a consumer, increases total capacity, expands consumer choice, and would help keep prices lower than they would otherwise be. It also offers content firms a way to reach consumers. And it helps pay for cost of expensive broadband infrastructure. It is win-win-win.

Firms have already used this method — Amazon, for example, pays for the data downloads of Kindle ebooks.

Across the landscape, allowing technical and business model innovation is important to keep delivering diverse products to consumers at the best prices. Prohibiting “sponsored data” or tiered data plans or content partnerships or quality-of service based networking will reduce the flexibility of networks, reduce product differentiation, and reduce consumer choice. A rule that requires only one product or only one price level for a range of products could artificially inflate the price that many consumers pay. Low-level users may end up paying for high-end users. Entire classes of products might not come into being because a rule bans a crucial partnership that would have helped the product at its inception. Network architectures that can deliver better performance at lower prices might not arise.

Common carriage style regulation is not appropriate for the Internet. The Internet is a fast changing, multipurpose network, built and operated by numerous firms, with many types of data, content, products, and services flowing over it, all competing and cooperating in a healthy and dynamic environment. Old telephone style regulation, meant to regulate a monopoly utility that used a single purpose network to deliver one type of service, would be a huge (and possibly catastrophic) step backward for what is today a vibrant Internet economy.

The Court, though not ruling on the wisdom of Net Neutrality, essentially agreed and vacated the old-style common carriage rules. It’s a near-term win for the Internet. The court’s grant to the FCC of regulatory authority over the Internet, save common carriage, is, however, potentially problematic. We don’t know how broad this grant is or what the FCC might do with it. A fundamental rethink of our communications laws and regulations may thus be in order.

Crisis of Complexity

[W]e have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly . . . . The White House is just a tiny part of what is a huge, widespread organization with increasingly complex tasks in a complex world.

That was President Obama, last week, explaining Obamacare’s failed launch. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Where Washington thinks this is a reason to give itself more to do, with more resources, however, we see it as a blaring signal of overreach.

The Administration now says Healthcare.gov is operating with “private sector velocity and effectiveness.” But why seek to further governmentalize one-seventh of the economy if the private sector is faster and more effective than government?

Meanwhile, the New York Times notes that

The technology troubles that plagued the HealthCare.gov website rollout, may not have come as a shock to people who work for certain agencies of the government — especially those who still use floppy disks, the cutting-edge technology of the 1980s.

Every day, The Federal Register, the daily journal of the United States government, publishes on its website and in a thick booklet around 100 executive orders, proclamations, proposed rule changes and other government notices that federal agencies are mandated to submit for public inspection.

So far, so good.

It turns out, however, that the Federal Register employees who take in the information for publication from across the government still receive some of it on the 3.5-inch plastic storage squares that have become all but obsolete in the United States.

Floppy disks make us chuckle. But the costs of complexity are all too real.

A Bloomberg study found the six largest U.S. banks, between 2008 and August of this year, spent $103 billion on lawyers and related legal expenses. These costs pale compared to the far larger economic distortions imposed by metastasizing financial regulation. Even Barney Frank is questioning whether his signature law, Dodd-Frank, is a good idea. The bureaucracy’s decision to push regulations intended for big banks onto money managers and mutual funds seems to have tipped his thinking.

This is not an aberration. This is what happens with vast, complex, ambiguous laws, which ask “huge, widespread” bureaucracies to implement them.

It is the norm of today’s sprawling Administrative State and of Congress’s penchant for 2,000-page wish lists, which ineluctably empower that Administrative State.

We resist, however, the idea that the problem is merely “outdated” or “inefficient” bureaucracy.

We do not need better people to administer these “laws.” With laws and regulations this extensive and ambiguous, they are inherently political. The best managers would seek efficient and effective outcomes based on common-sense readings and would resist political tampering. Effective implementation of conflicting and economically irrational rules would still yield big problems. Regardless, the goal is not effective management — it is political control.

Agency “reform” is not the answer, although in most cases reform is preferable to no reform. Even reformed agencies do not possess the information to manage a “complex world.” Anyway, “competent” management is not what the political branches want. Agencies routinely evade existing controls — such as procurement rules — when convenient. The largest Healthcare.gov contractor, for example, reportedly got the work without any contesting bids. That is not an oversight, it is a decision.

The laws and rules are uninterpretable by the courts. Depending on which judges hear the cases, we get dramatically and unpredictably divergent analyses, or the type of baby splitting Chief Justice Roberts gave us on Obamacare. Judges thus end up either making their own law or throwing the question back into the political arena.

Infinite complexity of law means there is no law.

“With great power,” Peter Parker’s (aka Spiderman’s) uncle told us, “comes great responsibility.” For Washington, however, ambiguity and complexity are features, not bugs. Ambiguity and complexity promote control without accountability, power without responsibility.

The only solution to this crisis of complexity is to reform the very laws, rules, scope, and aims of government itself.

In a paper last spring called “Keep It Simple,” we highlighted two instances — one from the labor markets and one from the capital markets — where even the most well-intended rules yielded catastrophic results. We showed how the interactions among these rules and the supporting bureaucracies produced unintended consequences. And we outlined a basic framework for assessing “good rules and bad rules.”

As our motto and objective, we adopted Richard Epstein’s aspiration of “simple rules for a complex world.” Which, you will notice, is the just opposite of the problem so incisively outlined by the President — Washington’s failed attempts to perform “complex tasks in a complex world.”

As we wrote elsewhere,

The private sector is good at mastering complexity and turning it into apparent simplicity — it’s the essence of wealth creation. At its best, the government is a neutral arbiter of basic rules. The Administration says it is ‘discovering’ how these ‘complicated’ things can blow up. We’ll see if government is capable of learning.

The Need For Speed: How’s U.S. Broadband Doing?

My TechPolicyDaily colleague Roslyn Layton has begun a series comparing the European and U.S. broadband markets.

As a complement to her work, I thought I’d address a common misperception — the notion that American broadband networks are “pathetically slow.” Backers of heavier regulation of the communications market have used this line over the past several years, and for a time it achieved a sort of conventional wisdom. But is it true? I don’t think so.

Real-time speed data collected by the Internet infrastructure firm Akamai shows U.S. broadband is the fastest of any large nation, and trails only a few tiny, densely populated countries. Akamai lists the top 10 nations in categories such as average connection speed; average peak speed; percent of connections with “fast” broadband; and percent of connections with broadband. The U.S., for example, ranks eighth among nations in average connection speed. And this is the number that is oft quoted. (This is a bit better than the no-longer-oft-used broadband penetration figures, which perennially showed the U.S. further down the list, at 15th or 26th place, for example.) Nearly all the the nations on these speed lists, however, with the exception of the U.S., are small, densely populated countries where it is far easier and more economical to build high-speed networks.

How to fix this? Well, Akamai also lists the top 10 American states in these categories. Because states are smaller, like the small nations that top the global list, they are a more appropriate basis for comparison. Last winter I combined the national and state figures and compiled a more appropriate comparative list. Using the newest data, I’ve updated the tables, which show that U.S. states (highlighted in green) dominate.

Average Connection SpeedAverage Peak Connection SpeedPercent Above 10 MbpsPercent Above 4 Mbps

Summarizing:

  • Ten of the top 13 entities for “average connection speed” are U.S. states.
  • Ten of the top 15 in “average peak connection speed” are U.S. states.
  • Ten of the top 12 in “percent of connections above 10 megabits per second” are U.S. states.
  • Ten of the top 20 in “percent of connections above 4 megabits per second” are U.S. states.

U.S. states thus account for 40 of the top 60 slots — or two-thirds — in these measures of actual global broadband speeds.

This is not a comprehensive analysis of the entire U.S. Less populated geographic areas, where it is more expensive to build networks, don’t enjoy speeds this high. But the same is true throughout the world.

Risk and Resilience

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s summer edition of the Business Horizon Quarterly is a special issue on the topic of “Resilience.” Our contribution is an essay called “Long Live the Risk Takers.”

Wealth, however, can be a double-edged sword. With wealth comes resilience and thus an increased capacity to take risk. More risk can lead to further riches. Yet greater wealth also increases potential losses. In other words, we have a lot more to gain and a lot more to lose.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that many modern elites and policymakers see danger around every corner—from terrorism to climate change to financial calamity. In one sense, an obsession with risk is a luxury of wealth. It is prudent to identify present shortcomings and contemplate future problems and attempt to avoid them. Preventing hunger, unemployment, bomb plots, wars, and financial panics is a good thing.

What happens, though, when we develop a hyper-focus on shortcomings and potential losses? What happens when we seek a public policy remedy for every perceived problem? This kind of obsession with risk, danger, and downside may be counterproductive. It may exacerbate known problems and unleash dangers never dreamed of.  . . . read the entire article.

Quote of the Day

The statute wants a competitive analysis, but as the Commission correctly points out, competition is not the goal, it the means.  Better performance is the goal.  When the evidence presented in the Sixteenth Report is viewed in this way, the conclusion to be reached about the mobile industry, at least to me, is obvious:  the U.S. mobile wireless industry is performing exceptionally well for consumers, regardless of whether or not it satisfies someone’s arbitrarily-defined standard of “effective competition.”

— George Ford, Phoenix Center chief economist, commenting on the FCC’s 16th Wireless Competition report.

Does Economic Growth Help the Middle Class?

That’s the question Jim Tankersley asked in a page one Washington Post story this week.

Here is how he summarized the situation:

“In the past three recoveries from recession, U.S. growth has not produced anywhere close to the job and income gains that previous generations of workers enjoyed. The wealthy have continued to do well. But a percentage point of increased growth today simply delivers fewer jobs across the economy and less money in the pockets of middle-class families than an identical point of growth produced in the 40 years after World War II.

That has been painfully apparent in the current recovery. Even as the Obama administration touts the return of economic growth, millions of Americans are not seeing an accompanying revival of better, higher-paying jobs.

The consequences of this breakdown are only now dawning on many economists and have not gained widespread attention among policymakers in Washington. Many lawmakers have yet to even acknowledge the problem. But repairing this link is arguably the most critical policy challenge for anyone who wants to lift the middle class.”

Tankersley cites the historical heuristic that a percentage point of GDP growth usually delivers about a half-point (0.5-0.6%) of employment growth.

“Three and a half years into the recovery that began in 2001 under President George W. Bush, job intensity was stuck at less than 0.2 percent. The recovery under President Obama is now up to an intensity of 0.3 percent, or about half the historical average.”

If we measure incomes, rather than employment, the situation appears even more dire:

“Middle-class income growth looks even worse for those recoveries. From 1992 to 1994, and again from 2002 to 2004, real median household incomes fell — even though the economy grew more than 6 percent, after adjustments for inflation, in both cases. From 2009 to 2011 the economy grew more than 4 percent, but real median incomes grew by 0.5 percent.”

What’s going on? Is the American middle class really in such bad shape? If so, why? And can we do anything about it? If not, why do these data appear to show a fundamental shift in the link between GDP growth and overall prosperity? These are big, complicated questions. For which I don’t have lots of concrete answers. I would, however, suggest a number of factors that may help us think about.

First, our economy does look different from the 1950s or 1960s. It is more complex. Back then, during a recession, factories laid off shifts of workers, leading to sharp employment downturns. Coming out of recessions, factories often hired back those same workers to build the same products. It was a simple process.

Today, although American manufacturing output is larger than ever, it employs a much smaller portion of the economy. The service and knowledge economies now dominate employment. And when jobs are not so closely tied to making widgets and the output is more ambiguous, the simple lay-off/hire-back formula disappears. In other words, we have lots more organizational and human capital today, and less “labor.”

This could be one reason the 1990 and 2001 recessions were shallower, but the job bounce-backs were slower.

Another factor, which everyone points out, is education. The United States may dominate many of the high-end professions in technology and finance because we have large cohorts of highly educated people (and immigrants). During the Great Recession and its aftermath, for example, the new App Economy, based on smartphones, broadband, and software, has created an estimated 500,000-600,000 jobs. Perhaps an also large cohort, however, not nearly as well educated or without the necessary knowledge skills, has been caught in a two-decade wave of globalization that quickly reduced the jobs this cohort was used to doing, without the possibility for quick changes to higher-value industries.

The Great Recession, however, was deeper and its employment rebound slower than the 1990 and 2001 recessions.

So we look to other factors that appear to be suppressing employment. In his new book The Redistribution Recession, University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan argues that a host of well-intended safety-net programs are the chief culprit. Unemployment insurance, disability payments, the minimum wage, Medicaid, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and other programs can create deep disincentives to work and/or hire. Mulligan estimated that the average marginal tax rate on the relevant population increased eight percentage points, from 40% to 48%, during the Great Recession. For many individuals and families, the complex effects of these programs conspire to yield 100% marginal tax rates — that is, an extra dollar earned loses a dollar or more in benefits and taxes.

I would throw out another possible factor: monetary policy. The Fed’s unorthodox zero-interest-rate-plus-bond-buying policy has created free money for large firms and for government. We see government growing and corporate profits at record highs. But for small and medium-sized firms, credit is being rationed by regulators. Low rates are meaningless if credit is unavailable. The slow recovery for small firms, which are often acknowledged to create most jobs, could be part of the equation.

Switching from employment to income, a few factors are commonly mentioned:

  • Education and globalization may, as with employment, be boosting income for the top but limiting income prospects for the broad middle.
  • Health care and other benefits are rising as a portion of overall compensation, thus limiting the measured portion that we call wages or salaries.
  • Immigration has added millions of low-wage workers that may depress average measured incomes. These particular workers may be much better off than they were in their home countries and, by lowering wages for jobs few Americans want to do, may “harm” only a very small number of Americans.
  • Many income measures do not account for taxes and larger transfer payments in recent times through EITC, Medicaid, disability, unemployment, food stamps, etc. When these are factored in, the numbers look much different.

Alan Reynolds made the case for these underestimates in his 2006 book, Income and Wealth. And now Bruce D. Meyer of the University of Chicago and James X. Sullivan of Notre Dame find that median income growth has not suffered nearly as much as the conventional wisdom says.

“After appropriately accounting for inflation, taxes, and noncash benefits, we show that median income rose by more than 50 percent over the past three decades. This increase is considerably greater than the gains implied by official statistics—official median income rose by only 14 percent between 1980 and 2009. Our improved measure of income increased in each of the past three decades, although the growth has been much slower since 2000. Median consumption also rose at a similar rate over the whole period but at a faster rate than income over the past decade.”

The real income slowdown in the 2000s is not surprising. The decade included two recessions—including the big one. The decade also saw, for the first time since the 1970s, a good whiff of inflation, especially in food, fuel, and housing. Add in spiraling health care and education costs. So, despite spectacular gains in computers, communications, and consumer goods, the middle class squeeze often seems real.

Mark Perry and Don Boudreaux, however, are even more emphatic than Meyer and Sullivan. They say the “trope” of the stagnant middle class is “spectacularly wrong”:

“It is true enough that, when adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the average hourly wage of nonsupervisory workers in America has remained about the same. But not just for three decades. The average hourly wage in real dollars has remained largely unchanged from at least 1964—when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started reporting it.

“Moreover, there are several problems with this measurement of wages. First, the CPI overestimates inflation by underestimating the value of improvements in product quality and variety. Would you prefer 1980 medical care at 1980 prices, or 2013 care at 2013 prices? Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.

“Second, this wage figure ignores the rise over the past few decades in the portion of worker pay taken as (nontaxable) fringe benefits. This is no small matter—health benefits, pensions, paid leave and the rest now amount to an average of almost 31% of total compensation for all civilian workers according to the BLS.

“Third and most important, the average hourly wage is held down by the great increase of women and immigrants into the workforce over the past three decades. Precisely because the U.S. economy was flexible and strong, it created millions of jobs for the influx of many often lesser-skilled workers who sought employment during these years.”

Perry and Boudreaux go on to say that no income figures—whether the officially stagnant ones or the higher adjusted figures—can account for the dramatic rise in the quantity and quality of consumption that income yields.

Bill Gates in his private jet flies with more personal space than does Joe Six-Pack when making a similar trip on a commercial jetliner. But unlike his 1970s counterpart, Joe routinely travels the same great distances in roughly the same time as do the world’s wealthiest tycoons.

What’s true for long-distance travel is also true for food, cars, entertainment, electronics, communications and many other aspects of ‘consumability.’ Today, the quantities and qualities of what ordinary Americans consume are closer to that of rich Americans than they were in decades past. Consider the electronic products that every middle-class teenager can now afford—iPhones, iPads, iPods and laptop computers. They aren’t much inferior to the electronic gadgets now used by the top 1% of American income earners, and often they are exactly the same.”

Despite all the factors in this multifaceted debate, one thing is certain. Economic growth is better for the middle class than is economic stagnation.

Zero GDP Reading Exposes the Real Deficit – Economic Growth

It is currently in fashion to say, with great contrarian flair, that federal spending growth is the slowest since the Eisenhower Administration. Or, as someone famous recently put it, “We don’t have a spending problem.”

This assertion is, to put it mildly, debatable. Spending jumped 18% in just one year during the Panic of 2008-09. If the government keeps spending at that level, but starts counting after the jump, then the growth rate will appear modest. Spending as a share of GDP is higher than at anytime since World War II, and so is the debt-to-GDP ratio. As the OMB chart below shows, it gets much worse.

Nevertheless, does anyone disagree that we have a growth problem, and a serious one? Yesterday’s negative GDP estimate for the fourth quarter of 2012 (-0.1%) should jolt the nation.

Let’s stipulate the GDP reading’s anomalies — lower than expected inventories and defense spending, which could reverse and add a bit to future growth. Yet economists had expected fourth quarter growth of 1.1% — itself an abysmal projection — and actual growth for the entire year was a barely mediocre 2.2%. Consider, too, that lots of economic activity was moved forward into 2012 to beat the Fiscal Cliff taxman. And don’t forget the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary QE programs, which are supposed to boost growth.

Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working. Not nearly well enough to create jobs. And not nearly well enough to help the budget. Because whatever you think about spending or taxes, the key factor in the health of the budget is economic growth.

OMB projects spending will grow (from today’s historically high level) around 2.96% per year through 2050. It projects annual economic growth over the period of 2.5%. That gets us a debt crisis somewhere down the line, and lots of other economic and social problems along the way.

Last year, however, keep in mind, growth was just 2.2%, following 2011’s even worse reading of 1.8%. If we can’t even match the modest 2.5% long-term projection coming out of a severe downturn, our problems may be worse than we think. Economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern asks “Is U.S. Growth Over?” Outlining seven economic headwinds, he projects growth of around 1.5% over the next few decades. In the chart below, you can see what a budget disaster such a slowdown would produce. Deficits quickly grow from a trillion dollars a year today into the many trillions per year.

Perhaps, many are now suggesting, we can tax our way out of the problem. Almost all academic research, however, suggests higher taxes (in terms of rates and as a portion of the economy) hurt economic growth. The Tax Foundation, for example, surveyed the 26 major studies on the topic going back to the early 1980s. Twenty-three of the studies found that taxes hurt economic growth. No study found higher taxes helped growth. Recent experience in Europe tends to confirm these findings.

Today, most of the policy discussion revolves around debt ceilings, sequesters, and the (fading) possibility of grand bargain budget deal. Mostly lost in the equation is economic growth. One question should dominate the thinking of policymakers: What policies would encourage more productive economic activity?

The new possibility of a breakthrough on immigration reform is an encouraging example. A more rational immigration policy for both low-skilled and high-skilled workers could boost economic growth significantly. Can we find more such policies? As you can see in the chart below, higher taxes can’t make up the budget shortfall. Faster growth and modest spending restraint can. This chart once again shows the OMB projected spending path (solid black line). The solid blue line shows what would happen to tax receipts if (1) growth remains mediocre and (2) we somehow find a way to dramatically raise the portion of the economy Washington taxes from the historical 18% to 23%.

That’s a major jump in taxation. Yet it doesn’t get us close to a healthy budget.

Faster growth and modest spending restraint, on the other hand, close the budget gap. And they do so without increasing the share Washington historically takes from the economy. The orange dashed line shows tax receipts under an economy growing at 3.5% with the historic 18% tax-to-GDP ratio. (Growth of 3.5% may sound like an ambitious goal. Keep in mind, however, that we are still far below trend — we’ve never really recovered from the Great Recession. Long term growth of 3.5%, therefore, merely includes a more rapid recovery to trend over the next several years and then a resumption of the long-term average of 3%.) In the medium to long term, a faster growth-lower tax regime generates more tax revenue than a slow growth-high tax regime.

Faster growth alone would be enough to stabilize budget deficits at today’s levels. But that is not enough. Trillion dollar deficits and Washington spending an ever rising share of the economy are not acceptable. Look, however, at the very modest spending restraint that would be required to essentially balance the budget by 2050. If we slowed spending growth from the projected 2.96% annual rate to just 2.7%, we could close the gap.

Does anyone think spending growth of 2.7% per year versus 2.96% is going to tear apart Social Security, Medicare, the military, or other essential government functions. Many of us could imagine responsible ways to reduce projected spending far, far more than that. All this shows is that a little restraint and robust economic growth go a long way.

The slow growth-high tax scenario produces a budget deficit of almost $3.5 trillion in 2050. Under the faster growth-lower tax scenario, with a touch of spending restraint, the 2050 budget deficit would be just $58 billion.

Now, I’m not pretending I know that a higher tax-to-GDP ratio will produce a particular rate of economic growth. The above are just rough scenarios. Lots of factors are in play. And that is precisely the point. Given an complex, uncertain world, we should attempt to align all our policies for economic growth. We know what policies tend to encourage growth, and those that tend to stunt it.

That means getting immigration policy right — and it appears we may finally be getting somewhere. It means smart, reasonable regulatory policies in energy, health care, education, communications, and intellectual property. It means a healthy division of powers between the federal and state governments. And, yes, it means sweeping tax reform — both individual and corporate.

What we are doing today isn’t working. We are on a dangerous path. Two percent growth won’t get us anywhere. No matter how much we tax ourselves. Only robust growth fueled by entrepreneurship and investment, with a healthy faith in the unknown possibilities of America’s future, will get us there.

Ignorance, the Ultimate Asset

Grab a cup of coffee and check out our new article at The American, the online magazine of the American Enterprise Institute.

“Ignorance, the Ultimate Asset”

“Deck the Halls with Macro Follies” – featuring Jean-Baptiste Say!

The App Economy, so far

See our new report summarizing the short but amazing life of the mobile app: Soft Power: Zero to 60 Billion in Four Years.

Memos to the Future: 2042

What would “the New Normal” of a mere 1% per capita GDP growth mean for the American economy over the next few decades?  What if it’s even worse, as many are now predicting? Is there anything we can do about it? If so, what? We address these items in our new article for the Business Horizon Quarterly — “Beyond the New Normal, a New Era of Growth.”

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