Tag Archives: economic growth

Those State “Laboratories”

Ah, federalism.

Life in the 21st Century challenges our federalist system in a number of ways; it gets more and more difficult to decide–at least at the margins–what sorts of rules should be applied to the country as a whole, and what left to the individual states.

However those issues get resolved, however, our federalist system pretty much guarantees that state governments will continue to be the “laboratories of democracy” celebrated by Justice Brandeis, who coined the phrase in the case of New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann.  Brandeis explained that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Most recently, state governments have been “laboratories” for the GOP’s belief that low taxes are all that is needed to stimulate economic growth.

As David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently noted,

Until recently, Kansas offered the clearest cautionary tale about deep tax cuts. The state’s then-governor, Sam Brownback, promised that the tax cuts he signed in 2012 and 2013 would lead to an economic boom. They didn’t, and Kansas instead had to cut popular programs like education.

Now Kansas seems to have a rival for the title of the state that’s caused the most self-inflicted damage through tax cuts: Louisiana.

Those who follow economic news have been aware of the painful results of the  Kansas experiment for some time. Evidently, however, the news of its dire results and the subsequent, ignominious retreat by the Kansas legislature failed to reach Louisiana–and that state’s legislators appear unable to deal with the reality of their own failed experiment.

“No two ways about it: Louisiana is a failed state,” Robert Mann, a Louisiana State University professor and New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist, wrote recently.

A special session of the State Legislature, called specifically to deal with a budget crisis caused by a lack of tax revenue, failed to do so, and legislators adjourned on Monday. No one is sure what will happen next. If legislators can’t agree on tax increases, cuts to education and medical care will likely follow.

Leonhardt places the blame for this state of affairs on Bobby Jindal, who came to the Governor’s office having drunk deeply of his party’s ideological Kool-Aid:

Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, deserves much of the blame. A Republican wunderkind when elected at age 36 in 2008, he cut income taxes and roughly doubled the size of corporate tax breaks. By the end of his two terms, businesses were able to use those breaks to avoid paying about 80 percent of the taxes they would have owed under the official corporate rate.

At first, Jindal spun a tale about how the tax cuts would lead to an economic boom — but they didn’t, just as they didn’t in Kansas. Instead, Louisiana’s state revenue plunged. The tax cuts helped the rich become richer and left the state’s middle class and poor residents with struggling schools, hospitals and other services.

Unfortunately, these “laboratories” aren’t working the way Justice Brandeis envisioned, because Republican representatives elected by the rest of the country refuse to learn from their failures. Ideology has once again trumped evidence– the tax bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump is patterned after those in Kansas and Louisiana.

The rich will get richer, and the poor and middle-class will pay the price. And those who refused to learn from the experiences of our “laboratories of democracy” will profess astonishment.

The Three “I”s

Let’s deconstruct the issue of economic growth.

If there is one thing all politicians support, at every level of government, it is growing the economy. Unfortunately, few of those political figures recognize the economic effects of their other policy preoccupations. Here in Indiana, that disconnect was on vivid display during then-Governor Mike Pence’s effort to privilege religious discrimination against LGBTQ citizens; it was equally obvious in North Carolina in the wake of the so-called “bathroom bill.”

It’s somewhat less obvious–but no less consequential–in Trump’s efforts to slash the budget and to drastically reduce immigration. A recent report from the Brookings Institution considered what it would take to achieve 3% growth in GDP, if that level of expansion is even possible: “There are three I’s that can do this: immigration, infrastructure, and investment.”

Infrastructure is the most obvious: not only does America desperately need to improve our deteriorating roads and bridges, not only do we need massive improvements to rail and public transportation, but cities and states across the country need the jobs a comprehensive infrastructure program would generate. As the Brookings Report notes,

Infrastructure jobs are disproportionately middle-class (defined as wages between the 25% and 75% percentiles, so this is the real middle-class and not the upper-middle class; there is no Dream Hoarding going on here).

Investment is harder to discuss, because far too many lawmakers fail to distinguish between investment and  routine expense. Conceptually, however, most of us understand that we must invest in order to grow–it’s the difference between payments on your home mortgage and the amount you spent at that fancy restaurant. Trump’s budget may not reflect that understanding, but many lawmakers do recognize the difference. Unfortunately, many self-identified “fiscal hawks” do not.

We need to increase our nation’s investment in research, development, and people. The federal government’s investment as a share of total research and development has fallen to multi-generational lows. Increasing the federal government’s investment will not bust the budget. Currently, the federal government’s entire investment in R&D (as measured by the OECD) is equal to only about one-tenth of our nation’s defense budget. Investments like these have proven track records of increasing economic growth.

When it comes to the importance of immigration to economic growth, however, American xenophobia is far more influential than economic reality.

Comprehensive immigration reform, such as the bipartisan legislation which passed the Senate in 2013 (Schumer-Rubio), would increase our nation’s work force, bring economic activity out of the shadows and into the mainstream, increase our nation’s economic and physical security, and boost our GDP. One estimate sees an increase in $1.5 trillion in GDP cumulatively over the next decade, as compared to the status quo. That same study contrasts with the deportation-only policy that appears to be favored by some in the Trump Administration, which would reduce economic output by over $2 trillion.  Even scholars from the CATO Institute argue that immigration reform could be used to boost GDP, with an earlier estimate of an increase of over 1.25% of GDP.

As another Brookings report notes,

President Trump claims that legal immigration levels should be cut in half and that greater priority should be placed on those with high skills. Both of these claims fly in the face of census statistics that show that current immigration levels are increasingly vital to the growth of much of America, and that recent arrivals are more highly skilled than ever before. Current immigration is especially important for areas that are losing domestic migrants to other parts of the country including nearly half of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Well, that’s what happens when you elect a man who has no idea how the economy works, and for whom facts are meaningless…



Inequality and Economic Growth

The growth of income inequality, and the disturbing erosion of the middle class have been  well documented.

Aside from the human consequences of that inequality, there are economic ramifications. Theoretically, some measure of income inequality provides those who have less with an incentive to work harder–in economist-speak, an incentive for increased economic output. However, a 2014 OECD report found that economic inequality and economic growth were inversely related.  Countries with falling rates of inequality grew more strongly than those with rising rates.

When you think about it, this makes sense. In economies like ours, we rely upon consumer demand to fuel economic growth. Moderate levels of inequality don’t matter, so long as there is a sufficient middle-class with sufficient disposable income to grease the wheel. So long as those with less still have “enough”–defined as income available after life’s necessities have been covered–and so long as they continue to purchase goods and services with that income, the economy can be expected to grow.

When the distribution curb is “bimodal,” with lots of people barely eking out a living and a few others sitting on piles of money, the picture changes. The poor have little or no disposable income with which to purchase goods and services, and the rich can meet their needs and desires without depleting a significant portion of their assets. In any event, there aren’t enough of the rich to drive economic growth, even if they spent lavishly.

When people don’t buy, manufacturers don’t make. When manufacturers don’t make, they don’t hire workers (or keep the ones they have). Retailers close or downsize. Eventually, the assets held by the 1% lose their value.

A rising tide may lift all boats, but the tide won’t rise without water.

We really are all in this together.

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

When Bill Clinton ran for President, James Carville famously posted a large sign in the campaign’s “war room.” The sign read: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Carville wanted to remind his candidate and those working for him to keep their focus where he felt it belonged– on the economy.

Fast forward to the escalating debates over American inequality, the diminishing numbers of people who can be categorized as middle class, and the widening gap between wealthy Americans and everyone else. As Ryan Cooper noted in a recent article in The Week, progressives arguing for measures to reduce that gap have forgotten Carville’s lesson, and in the process have neglected the most potent argument for those measures.

That argument is the economy.

As Cooper notes,

“A growing body of evidence suggests that inequality isn’t just an issue of fairness, but is actually hampering general prosperity. And that, in turn, ought to have enormous knock-on political effects.

 That inequality is choking growth is the conclusion of the new issue of the Washington Monthly, including articles by Heather Boushey, Mike Konczal, Alan Blinder, and Joe Stiglitz. It comes on the heels of several other studies, even one from the IMF, traditionally a very orthodox institution, that reach the same conclusion.”

Modern economic systems depend upon consumption. Many of us are less than enthusiastic about that undeniable fact, and there is certainly much to criticize in consumer culture. But in the system we inhabit, consumer demand is a critical element of economic health. When millions of people are making poverty wages, demand suffers.

When the great majority of people have very little disposable income, there is no mass market. No matter how entrepreneurial a given individual may be, s/he is unlikely to start a business—or get financing to start a business—if the success of that business will be dependent upon mass sales.

It’s not just new business starts, either; when consumers aren’t spending, existing businesses aren’t likely to invest and grow, and they are equally unlikely to be “job creators” hiring more workers.

When debates about growing inequality are framed as issues of fairness (compelling as some of us may find such arguments), we fail to deploy the most effective weapon at our disposal—the fact that the current policies intended to privilege supposed “makers” aren’t just harming those who are scorned as “takers.” They are actually harming us all, “makers” included, by depressing demand and retarding economic growth.

When I was in law school, by far the most valuable lesson I learned was “he who frames the issue wins the debate.”

Take the current debate over raising the minimum wage.

When we argue for raising the minimum wage only on fairness grounds, the typical response is that higher wages will depress job creation. Even though available evidence convincingly rebuts this, it is a widely accepted meme because it seems so self-evident; indeed, it would be true if all else were equal. (In real economic life, it turns out that all else isn’t equal–who knew?) If, however, we frame the argument for a higher minimum wage as an argument for a more robust economy benefitting everyone—an argument that has the added merit of being demonstrably true—we win.

As James Carville reminded us: It’s the economy, stupid!



Myths Die Hard

Andrea Neal’s editorial in the Indianapolis Star yesterday was a reminder that evidence is no match for strongly-held beliefs.

Neal seconded Governor Pence’s ill-considered call for a ten percent reduction in Indiana’s income tax. Even the Republicans in the General Assembly have recognized how harmful such a tax cut would be in a state where cities and towns are already strangling, thanks to the even more ill-considered tax caps Mitch Daniels managed to enshrine in the Indiana constitution.  Neal made a familiar argument: lower taxes will lead to more economic growth and more job creation.

This argument sounds logical. Leave businesses with more cash and they’ll spend it to expand and hire. I remember being persuaded by that theory myself when I first became involved in policy and political life. The problem is, the evidence refutes it.

A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic policy confirms previous research. As the Institute reports,

States that levy personal income taxes, including the states with the highest top rates, have seen more economic growth
per capita and less decline in their median income level over the last ten years than the nine states that do not tax income.
As any economist will confirm, the factors facilitating economic growth and job creation are varied; despite the almost religious belief in the supernatural power of tax policy, most studies suggest that tax levels are only one of a large number of factors that influence business decisions. The availability of an educated workforce, a location near suppliers or large customers, the existence of a market for one’s goods or services, cost of living, and the general quality of life  all play a part.
For many employers, the availability of public transportation so that employees can get to their place of work is extremely important; indeed, decent public transportation would do far more for the Indianapolis economy than a tax cut that further erodes public services and the quality of life.
Think about it: how low would taxes need to be before you’d move your business to Mississippi?