“Get government off our backs!” It’s a chant we’ve heard a lot of over the last few years, usually in the deep, gruff voice of those old enough to remember the heyday of our parents and grandparents. It’s a call to a simpler time when there was less government, less taxation, and more to go around. At least, that’s the story we are told.
But an analysis of the size of our Federal Government as a share of the economy shows that while it is a shade bigger than it used to be, it’s way below its maximum. There are peaks in Federal Government size which fit not to an increase in social benefits or productive spending, but the very expensive line item that has been pricey enough to bring down governments and cultures for centuries – war.
In short, it’s time for the progressive left to embrace “smaller government” of a kind and to show that world that peace is not idealistic but practical.
When the first estimate for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the second quarter of this year (2Q14) came out, there was reason to cheer. A solid gain of 4.0% seemed to really shake off the fear cause by the figure for 1Q14, revised up to -2.1%. There wasn’t a new recession after all, and growth is back to being robust. Right?
It’s OK, we’re among friends. Your skepticism is justified. The main reason for the fall in 1Q14 was a big drop in health care expenditures, partly due to a revised way of calculating them. The problem is the way we gather this magic figure called GDP, a supposed measure of the total size of the economy. Just before the figure for 2Q14 came out a new measure of the economy, Gross Output (GO), was introduced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). It illustrates the problems with GDP, especially as we all focus on jobs as the real sign of economic health.
This was supposed to be the year that the economy turned the corner, building on the foundation laid in 2013. It isn’t happening. The final revision to first quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth came in at a stunning -2.9%. Is it time to panic?
Nearly everyone agrees that it’s a statistical aberration, so the answer appears to be no. But we’re certainly not enjoying the economic growth that was expected this year. The economy is giving mixed signals at best, leading everyone to wonder if maybe we’re really just treading water after all.
If you pay attention to social media, or even just talk amongst your friends, you may have heard some awful things about the economy. Many people, Republican and Democrat, are convinced that things are simply not improving. The feeling tends to be stronger among Republicans, especially Tea Partiers, who believe that socialist policies are still killing us. But the mood crosses party lines rather fluidly.
It boils down to six persistent myths about our economy today. Some are based on old news, taken from horror stories from the depths of this depression around 2010. Some are simply wrong. But all of them reinforce the emotional reason why this is indeed a depression, a dark feeling shared across society. It’s also rather wrong. Let’s run them down.
Is wealth and income inequality holding the economy back? A recent study by the Pew Foundation shows that from 2009-2011 the wealthiest 7% of the US saw their net worth climb 24% – to an average of nearly $3.2M – while the other 93% of the population saw their wealth plummet 7%. More than being unfair, it may also be holding back economic growth overall. The rich may be happy with their take, but it may stop coming.
A number of studies have shown the effect over a number of countries, and the effect is undeniable. At what point does income and/or wealth inequality slow growth? Like an excess of debt it’s hard to say, but the two taken together lead to a compelling argument that the search for sustainable, meaningful growth is a strongly bipartisan, left and right issue – and something we should get moving on as a priority.
At what point does public debt become a problem? If you ask many Republicans when the debt hits 90% of GDP we’re in trouble. Given that the Federal Debt is above this level you can see why there is a push for budget control if not outright austerity. But where did that magic figure come from?
The answer is a work by two Harvard economists, Reinhart and Rogoff’s 2010 paper “Growth in a Time of Debt.” But now that this magic number has been debunked in spectacular style, will the call for austerity ease? Given how the sides have retrenched, no way. But it is true that a certain level of debt is indeed a problem – it just isn’t something you can pull from a formula and throw onto autopilot.
While waiting for new information, it’s always good to go over the old stuff and see how we’ve done so far. Barataria used to use the weekly unemployment initial claims as an instant guide to how the Depression has been running, but stopped a year ago. The rationale at the time was that we were close to equilibrium at about 360k jobs lost every week. There wasn’t much reason to expect a change.
How did that assumption fare? And was this really proof, along with job growth leading GDP growth, that we are in an unusual economic event? Let’s go back over some old ground and see how the old predictions went. Some of this went well and some not so well.