With Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, rising to number 1 on best-seller lists, inequality has become central to the public debate over economic policy. Piketty, and much of this discussion, focuses on the sharp increases in the share of income and wealth going to the top 1 percent, .1 percent and .01 percent of the population.
The British economy has experienced the most rapid growth in the G7 over the last few months. It increased at an annual rate of more than 3 percent in the last quarter — even as the U.S. economy barely grew, continental Europe remained in the doldrums and Japan struggled to maintain momentum in the face of a major new valued added tax increase.
The world’s finance ministers and central bank governors will gather in Washington this week for the twice yearly meetings of the International Monetary Fund. Though there will not be the sense of alarm that dominated these meetings after the financial crisis, the unfortunate reality is that the global economy’s medium-term prospects have not been so cloudy for a long time.
The events in Ukraine have now made effective external support for successful economic and political reform there even more crucial. The world community is rising to the occasion, with concrete indications of aid coming not just from the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions but also the United States, the European Union and the G20.
Last month in this space I argued that we may be in a period of secular stagnation in which sluggish growth, output and employment at levels well below potential, and problematically low real interest rates might coincide for quite some time to come. Since the beginning of this century U.S. GDP growth has averaged less than 1.8 percent per year. Right now the economy is operating at nearly 10 percent — or more than $1.6 trillion — below what was judged to be its potential path as recently as 2007. And all this is in the face of negative real interest rates out for more than 5 years and extraordinarily easy monetary policies.
Some time ago speaking at the IMF, I joined others who have invoked the old idea of secular stagnation and raised the possibility that the American and global economies could not rely on normal market mechanisms to assure full employment and strong growth without sustained unconventional policy support. My concern rested on a number of considerations. First, even though financial repair had largely taken place four years ago, recovery since that time has only kept up with population growth and normal productivity growth in the United States, and has been worse elsewhere in the industrial world. Second, manifestly unsustainable bubbles and loosening of credit standards during the middle of the last decade, along with very easy money, were sufficient to drive only moderate economic growth. Third, short-term interest rates are severely constrained by zero lower bound and there is very little scope for further reductions in either term premia or credit spreads, and so real interest rates may not be able to fall far enough to spur enough investment to lead to full employment. Fourth, in such a situation falling wages and prices or inflation at slower-than-expected rates is likely to worsen economic performance by encouraging consumers and investors to delay spending, and to redistribute income and wealth from higher spending debtors to lower spending creditors.
As the president has recognized, the failure of his administration to deliver a functioning website that Americans can use to enroll in Obamacare represents an inexcusable error. Having succeeded after more than a century of failed efforts in achieving the progressive dream goal of legislating universal health insurance in America, it is tragic to be falling short on the mundane task of allowing Americans to actually enroll in the healthcare exchanges. Even if the goal of getting the health insurance exchanges working by November 30 is achieved, and this cannot be regarded by objective observers as a certainty, a shadow has been cast on the core competence of the federal government.
This month Washington is consumed by the impasse over reopening the government and raising the debt limit. It seems likely that this episode, like the 1995-96 government shutdowns and the 2011 debt limit scare, will be remembered mainly by the people directly involved. But there is a chance future historians will see today’s crisis as the turning point where American democracy was shown to be dysfunctional — an example to be avoided rather than emulated.
No one is satisfied with the U.S. corporate tax system. From one perspective the main problem is that at a time when corporate profits are extraordinarily high relative to GDP, tax collections are very low relative to GDP. And many very successful companies pay little or nothing in taxes at a time when the budget deficit is a major concern and when hundreds of thousands of defense workers are being furloughed and lotteries are being held to determine which children Head Start can no longer afford to help. From another perspective, the main problem is that the United States has a higher corporate tax rate than any other major country and, unlike other countries, it imposes severe taxes on income earned outside its borders. Many argue that this unfairly burdens companies engaged in international competition, discourages the repatriation of profits earned abroad, and–because of the patterns of investment that result–benefits foreign workers at the expense of their counterparts.