Sunday, April 24, 2011

Did America’s Economy Implode Because the Rich Are Too Wealthy? A Review of “Aftershock” by Robert B. Reich

The Great Recession has forced Americans to confront political and economic issues that have been ignored for decades. Since around 1980, middle class real wages have stagnated, both personal and government debt have increased to unsustainable levels, infrastructure and education have declined—and both Democrats and Republicans are to blame. The optimism, pragmatism, “can-do” attitude, and belief in continual progress that characterized America for most of its history (with some notable exceptions, including the Civil War and Great Depression) have been shattered. Americans have grown increasingly pessimistic that their children and grandchildren can achieve the “American Dream.”

Robert B. Reich, former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, writes about the causes of America’s economic problems in his book Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future. His central message is that the concentration of wealth at the top of the income ladder results in insufficient domestic demand for products and services, which leads to economic stagnation, anemic recoveries, and deep recessions.

There’s no question that income has become more concentrated the last 30 years. In the late 1970’s, the richest 1% of the country took in less than 9% of the nation’s total income. By 2007, the richest 1% took in 23.5% of the nation’s income, or more than double what it was before. Real wages of a typical American worker, however, stagnated during the same time period. If the gains of the American economy had been more equally distributed during the last 30 years, a typical person would be making 60% more now than he did then.

The problem with the rich becoming too wealthy is that they don’t spend enough. They live too modestly compared to what they can afford. The overall demand for goods and services shrinks because the rich invest most of their income. If more of the nation’s wealth went to the middle class, who spend a greater percentage of their income than the wealthy do, demand would increase, businesses would expand and hire more, and the economy would grow.

Reich writes approvingly of the period of the “Great Prosperity”, the years 1947 through 1975, in which American implemented a “basic bargain”: workers made enough to buy what was produced, resulting in complementary mass production and mass consumption. Wages of lower-income Americans grew faster than those at or near the top, doubling over these years. Productivity also doubled, giving the lie to those who argued that large inequality was needed for economic growth. It’s true that high income and wealth is an incentive for entrepreneurial and executive achievement, but how high does this income and wealth have to be? Even though CEO’s made only 30 times the typical worker salaries during the Great Prosperity (as opposed to 300 times today), they seemed motivated enough back then to do their jobs well.

The Great Prosperity also included powerful unions, generous health and pension benefits, minimum wage and overtime laws, unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (in 1965), and interest deduction on mortgages. The G.I. Bill and expansion of the public university system helped make college affordable for the middle class. The interstate highway system became the most ambitious public works program in American history. The Cold War resulted in continued high military spending, which (via the “military-industrial complex”) led to the invention of the transistor, laser, computer, jet engine, and Internet. Unlike today, there was a societal consensus that this high level of government spending had to be paid for. The top marginal income tax rates in the 1950’s were 91%, and were 77% as late as 1969.

After the late 1970’s, the Great Prosperity ended and America began a period of increasing inequality. Reich recognizes that both globalization and automation led to the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs. New jobs that were created, mainly in the service sector, didn’t pay as well as the jobs lost. At the same time that the middle and working classes had to accept lower wages, however, business executives and Wall Street traders saw their incomes skyrocket.

Government could have enforced the basic bargain, and reversed these trends leading to more wealth concentration at the top. For example, it could have given employees more bargaining power to get higher wages, especially in industries sheltered from foreign competition. It could have enlarged safety nets, financed Medicare for all, and forced industries laying off large numbers of workers at once to pay a year’s severance, along with training them for new jobs. It could have raised taxes on the rich and cut them for the poor. Instead, it did the opposite. Under the influence of libertarian, free-market economists, the government deregulated, privatized, cut taxes, and shredded the safety nets. It allowed companies to bust unions, slash jobs and wages, cut benefits, and move factories and jobs overseas. Government deregulated Wall Street while insuring it against major losses. This changed the finance industry from the servant to the master of American industry. Wall Street demanded short-term profits over long-term growth. “Between 1997 and 2007, the finance sector became the fastest-growing part of the U.S. economy” (p. 56). Finance and insurance companies’ share of American corporate profits increased from 10% to 40%.

It’s true that confidence in government began to decline toward the end of the Great Prosperity, with events such as the Vietnam War, Watergate, oil shortages and double-digit inflation. This confidence has continued to decline since. Reich attributes this decline to deterioration of government services and explosion of deficits, both of which were caused by the tax cuts. Also important was the increasing appeal of free-market dogma, which came through think tanks, books, media and ads that were largely financed by the rich and powerful.

Middle class Americans developed three “coping mechanisms” to help mitigate the effects of their declining economic status. These mechanisms included:
  1. Women moved into paid work. In 1966, 20% of mothers with young children had jobs outside the home. By the late 1990’s, this had risen to 60% of mothers. While women with college degrees were able to land high-paying jobs, most women worked low-wage jobs to try to prop up stagnant and declining family income.
  2. Everyone worked longer hours. By the 2000’s the typical American family worked 500 hours, or 12 weeks longer per year than it had in 1979.
  3. People saved less and borrowed more. During the Great Prosperity, the American middle class saved about 9% of their after-tax income each year, and their debt averaged 50 to 55%. The savings rate declined to 2.6% in 2008, while debt exploded to 138%. Reich sees this indebtedness not as a moral failing, but as a way to try to maintain their previous lifestyle. When the debt bubble burst during the Great Recession, people were unable to continue borrowing.
The wealth inequality today is similar to what it was in 1928, just before the Great Depression, and Reich draws parallels between the two eras. There were high levels of private debt, especially mortgage debt, in both the 1920’s and 2000’s. Richer Americans speculated on a limited range of assets, resulting in stock market and real estate bubbles. The 1920’s even witnessed a Florida real estate boom, similar to recent times.

After the Great Recession that began in 2007, the U.S. government kept interests rates near-zero, bailed out the banks, and printed a great deal of money. This helped avert a second Great Depression, but left the federal government with vastly increased debt and deficits. Unlike during the Great Depression, in which the Roosevelt administration created a new economic order through its New Deal policies, the post-Great Recession Obama administration has done very little fundamental reform. The problem of widening inequality will likely continue. Reich predicts many years of high unemployment, middle class economic insecurity, and economic stagnation. From this Great Recession “aftershock”, we’ll see either a major political backlash against both big business and government, or large-scale reforms.

Some reforms that Reich would like to see implemented include:
  • A reverse income tax that supplements the wages of the middle class.
  • Higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy.
  • A carbon tax, to promote the development of “green” technologies.
  • A redesign of the unemployment system, making it a “reemployment system” that smoothes the transition to a new job.
  • Replacing spending on public schools with vouchers based on family income, which would force wealthy suburban schools to take in lower and middle-income students.
  • Making tuition free in all public colleges and universities, which will be financed by requiring that all graduates pay a fixed percentage of their taxable income for the first 10 years of full-time work.
  • An expansion of Medicare to all Americans (replacing the current private insurance system).
  • Expanding government spending on public goods such as transportation, parks, recreational facilities, museums, and libraries, making them free for all.
  • Strengthening campaign-finance laws, funding elections publically, and limiting issue advertising.

Reich’s agenda for change makes sense in a nation in which there’s a consensus for government activism, high taxation, and social programs, in which people respect and admire politicians and bureaucrats, and are confident in the competence and ability of government to follow through on its promises. Such a nation doesn’t have anything in common with contemporary America. Reich’s laundry list for change has no chance for passage.

Reich’s views are similar to those of Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. The Reich/Krugman viewpoint can be classified as “Liberal Democrat” and “Keynesian”. Unlike Thomas Friedman, who focuses on competitiveness and tries to appeal to both ends of the political spectrum (see my review of his book The World is Flat), Reich and Krugman focus exclusively on the demand side of the economy, and their appeal is mainly to liberals.

Was the Great Recession caused by too much wealth possessed by the rich? The speculative real-estate boom that led to the Great Recession was a world-wide phenomenon. Lax regulation certainly contributed to it. I’m not sure that American wealth inequality was a direct cause, although it may also have contributed to it. European countries have much less wealth inequality than America, yet they also suffered from the recession. The fact that the rich invest most of their money has led to more speculation and greater influence and power of Wall Street.

Regarding Reich’s point that the economy would be doing better if there was less inequality, I don’t agree with that. The American economy grew enormously during the (relatively) laissez-faire period of 1870-1928. This graph shows how real per capita GNP in the U.S. more than doubled. During that period, there were significant inventions and technological advances that improved the standard of living of many Americans, including electric power, electric lights, bicycles, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, widespread use of railroads and steamboats, medical advances, improved public sanitation, central heat, air conditioning, appliances, and radio. While there were few government social programs, and little military spending, America emerged from the ashes of its Civil War to become the world’s premier economic power. So I don’t agree that government programs are necessary to have a robust, vibrant economy, or to have a higher standard of living for the majority of people.

On the other hand, contrary to what many conservatives and libertarians say, a mixed economy with substantial military and social welfare spending, along with high marginal taxes, isn’t inimical to economic progress. Reich and Krugman are correct that the Great Prosperity (1947-1975) period in America was a time of enormous economic and technological progress, along with an improved standard of living for the majority of people.

Both liberals and conservatives agree that the last 30 years has been a period of economic decline in America. They’re in sharp disagreement, however, over the causes. Liberals such as Reich and Krugman argue that the decline was due to tax cuts and subsequent reduced government investments in social programs and infrastructure, along with deregulation, leading to wage stagnation among the middle class, concentration of wealth at the top, and increased deficits and debt. Conservatives argue that government social welfare and entitlement spending, regulation, and litigation exploded, leading to increased taxes, deficits, debt, and economic decline.

Both sides are right. Liberals are correct that the tax cuts have largely benefited the wealthy. Infrastructure has been neglected. Deregulation led to the housing boom and bust. Conservatives are correct that social welfare and entitlement spending has increased, along with some types of regulation and litigation (especially connected to employment, discrimination, and civil rights).

I think the problem isn’t the level of government spending or taxation, but fundamental disagreements between the two parties that has led to gridlock. Both periods of growth and progress, the laissez-faire one of 1870-1928, and the mixed economy one of 1947-1975, were a time of general consensus. While there were people and groups who opposed the consensus, they were an insignificant minority. During both periods, there was a long-term vision, and large investments in infrastructure and education. The infrastructure and education investments during the laissez-faire period were largely private; during the mixed economy period they were mostly public and military. The private versus public nature of the infrastructure and education investments is less important than the fact that they get done. They haven’t been getting done the last 30 years—existing American infrastructure and education has not been well maintained, and new investment is virtually nonexistent.

The Great Depression and World War II eras (1929-1945) were a transition time from a laissez-faire to a mixed economy. Reich argues in this book that the Great Depression was caused by income inequality, leading to inadequate demand. Conservatives would counter that the Great Depression was caused by government meddling in the economy, both before (income tax, antitrust regulation, the Federal Reserve), and after (New Deal regulations and programs, increased taxation). I would argue that the laissez-faire consensus was lost during the Great Depression, and the fact that the consensus was lost led to the length and severity of the depression. The crisis of World War II created a new consensus for big government, and led to the mixed economy Great Prosperity of 1947-1975. It was a combination of the transmutation of liberalism from a strictly economic philosophy to a combination economic-social philosophy in the 1960’s and 1970’s, along with the religious and libertarian conservative backlash that began with the Regan administration in the 1980’s, that led to the demise of the Great Prosperity consensus.

As further evidence of the importance of consensus to economic progress, consider contemporary China. It’s difficult to characterize the political-economic situation there—part Communist, part mixed-economy, part laissez-faire—but it’s undeniable that whatever they are doing, is working. The consensus there is produced partly by a dictatorship that tolerates no dissent, but this dictatorship, unlike the Maoist one, isn’t based solely on fear and ideology. The people in China are seeing their standard of living improve—millions have achieved middle class status, and the general progress there is perhaps the greatest economic miracle of our time. Compared to how other countries have fared in the Great Recession, especially America, China has weathered the downturn well.

This Chinese success story directly contradicts both the liberal and conservative perspectives. As Reich notes in his book, most of Chinese government spending is devoted to production, not consumption. Chinese people have virtually no safety net—spending on social services is about 6% of the economy, compared to an average of 25% in most developed nations. China isn’t following the Reich-Krugman vision of a demand-oriented, socially-generous nation. It also isn’t following the conservative/libertarian vision of “free minds and free markets.” The basic political system is a Communist dictatorship that arrests and jails dissidents, limits families to one child, and suppresses religious expression. Contemporary China bears little resemblance to past or present America. Yet its economy is one of the fastest-growing in the world. This chart shows China’s explosive GDP growth since 1990, 5 times America’s growth during the same period.

Since neither Reich’s liberal agenda, nor a libertarian/conservative agenda can be enacted in the current political climate of gridlock, what can be done to achieve a new consensus that will allow America to grow and prosper again? One possibility is for centrists like Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Fareed Zakaria, and others to bring the two sides together and come up with a workable compromise. The problem is that the two sides have been trying to compromise for 30 years, and the compromises haven’t been working:
  • Conservatives cut taxes and increased defense spending, while liberals increased social welfare and entitlement spending. This has led to skyrocketing deficits and debt, along with declining infrastructure and education.
  • Conservatives deregulated the financial industry, while liberals used the government to insure against poor investments and losses. This led to the financial crash and bailout of 2008.
  • Conservatives tried to keep some private sector, free market elements in the American health care system, while liberals tried to expand the public sector options and give more people access to care. The conservative influence has produced a supposedly competitive private insurance sector that fails to control costs, and the liberal vision has produced a public sector that provides all the benefits of socialized medicine (free and unlimited health care for seniors and the disabled) without any of the cost controls (i.e. rationing). The result is the most expensive health care system in the world that provides mediocre results. We have the highest infant mortality among the world’s industrialized nations, and our life expectancy is shorter than 40 other nations.
  • Conservatives promoted school choice, especially private schools, while liberals maintained the status quo in the public schools. The result has been that most students today attend mediocre public schools, while a few lucky or rich kids attend charter or private schools.
  • Conservatives promoted oil drilling and other fossil fuel development, while liberals advocated for conservation and green technology. The result has been that we’ve had no energy policy, and we’re almost twice as dependent on foreign oil today than we were at the time of the first oil crisis in 1973.
These differences and failed compromises on economic issues are only part of the bad blood between conservatives and liberals. The other part is the profound differences over social issues. Since the 1970’s, liberals have become more secular and hostile to traditional religion, as exemplified in their using the courts and legislation to legalize abortion, to restrict public religious expression, and promote alternative lifestyles such as homosexuality. At the same time, conservatives have embraced fundamentalist Christianity, seething at the godless liberals and their secular-humanistic agenda. For many liberals and conservatives, these differences are more important than the economic ones.

The over 30-year marriage of modern liberals and conservatives has failed. The two sides have spent most of the time attacking and criticizing the other, neglecting their duty to promote the public good. It’s unlikely that centrist marriage counselors like Thomas Friedman can do anything constructive to bring the two sides together. It’s time for a divorce.

I propose that the country split into two, a predominantly liberal Coastal America, and predominantly conservative Middle America. Coastal America would include most of the “Blue” states. Some states in the middle portion of the country would likely join, such as Illinois. Some states in the Southeast, such as South Carolina, would likely not join. Middle America would include most of the “Red” states. My guess is that the capitol of Middle America would be in Texas, the most heavily populated among the “Red” states. Splitting the country this way would cause major logistical and transportation issues, since some state borders would transform into international borders. If, for example, Kansas joins Middle America, and Missouri joins Coastal America, many commuters in the Kansas City metro area would have to cross an international border to get to work. Also, the “marriage settlement agreement” (i.e. splitting the assets and debts between the two countries) would be a source of contention. Would both sides get nuclear weapons? There would be a possibility of military engagement between the two sides (perhaps leading to civil war, as it did 150 years ago).

While not an ideal situation, and one with many obstacles and pitfalls, it’s the best of several bad alternatives. One alternative is to continue the way we’ve been going. This will lead to continued economic decline, neglect of infrastructure and education, growing frustration at government, and the increased possibility of widespread political unrest or civil war. Another alternative is to wait for some crisis or external threat to bring the sides together. Even in the unlikely event that some unifying crisis will happen, such as the 9/11 attacks, this crisis won’t change the fundamental differences. Just as with the 9/11 attacks, after the crisis is over the status quo will resume. Another alternative is for one side to establish a dictatorship, imposing its ideas on the other. That’s the only way that either the liberal Reich or the conservative/libertarian agenda can be achieved in an intact America. An American dictatorship would be impossible without first a civil war, a major economic disaster, or both.

Reich’s agenda has a good chance for passage in Coastal America. While there would be some conservatives there, they wouldn’t be numerous or influential enough to stop the liberals from passing the legislation, and a President Obama or some other liberal President from signing it. Reich, Krugman, Obama, Hillary Clinton and others can transform Coastal America into a European-style welfare state, complete with high taxes, universal Medicare, and, most importantly, public investment in infrastructure and education. Their model would be the Great Prosperity America of 1947-1975, along with contemporary European countries. One thing liberals need to understand is that the aging of America, along with foreign competition, forces them to be much less generous with social welfare and entitlement spending than they were in the past.

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Ron/Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich and others can transform Middle America into a Libertarian-Christian utopia, using as their model the laissez-faire U.S. from 1870-1928. They can promote private investment and free markets in health care, infrastructure and education. Since American today is closer to the 1947-1975 model than the 1870-1928 model, and many people depend on social welfare and entitlement programs, the conservatives would have a harder time enacting their agenda. One thing that conservatives need to understand is that the America of 1870-1928 had very little defense spending (with the brief exception of World War I). If Rush, Glenn, Sarah and the others want to cut taxes to pre-1930 levels, or eliminate the income tax, they’ll need to radically cut defense spending.

The good thing about a split America is that neither the Coastal nor Middle parts would have any pretensions about being a superpower. There would be no need for (or ability to fund) the level of military spending we have now. We wouldn’t be able to send troops to a future Iraq or Afghanistan to try to perform nation building. We would have to sell off or destroy much of our military hardware, and send most of our troops back to private life. Our military would transform from being the world’s policeman to being a self-defense force.

Like with West and East Germany between World War II and the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Coastal and Middle America can be seen as a large-scale political-economic experiment. If one is vastly more successful than the other, as West Germany was compared to East Germany, then perhaps the failed one will eventually agree to accept the system adopted by the successful one. Like with the reunification of Germany, America may then become reunited again. On other hand, if both are successful, or neither one successful, then perhaps America may remain divided for a long time.

In conclusion, Aftershock has some good examples of how our country has become more economically unequal in the last 30 years. The middle class has struggled while the rich have gotten much richer. The coping mechanisms that those in the working and middle classes have used to try to maintain their standard of living, including having both spouses work, increasing their work hours, and increasing their level of debt relative to income, have been exhausted. The money going to the rich, unlike that going to the middle class, is usually invested, not spent, which helps out Wall Street but not Main Street.

I don’t agree with Reich’s argument that a massive increase of government social welfare spending and taxation is needed to grow America’s economy. While such a policy will lead to more equality, there are other ways to promote economic growth and improved standard of living that rely more on stimulating production than consumption. These alternatives include laissez-faire economics that America utilized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with a mix of Communist dictatorship and capitalism that contemporary China uses. Reich’s agenda can only be achieved in a Coastal America that results from splitting the country into two. Such a split is the best of a number of bad alternatives that face America today, a result of a failed marriage between modern liberals and conservatives.

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