There should be little disagreement across the political spectrum that growth and job creation remain America’s most serious national problem. Ahead of President Obama’s first State of the Union address of his second term, and further fiscal negotiations in Washington, America needs to rethink its priorities for economic policy.
The U.S. economy grew at a rate of 1.5 percent in 2012. Last week, the independent Congressional Budget Office projected that growth will be only 1.4 percent during 2013 – and that unemployment will rise. While the CBO says that growth will accelerate in 2014 and beyond, it nonetheless predicts that unemployment will remain above 7 percent until 2016.
A weak economy and limited job creation make growth in middle-class incomes all but impossible, add pressure to budgets by restricting tax revenue and threaten essential private and public investments in education and innovation. Worse, they undermine the American example at a dangerous time in the world.
We can do better. With strains from the financial crisis receding and huge investment possible in energy, housing and reshored manufacturing, the United States faces a moment of opportunity unlike any in a long time. The economy could soon enter a virtuous cycle of confidence, growth and deficit reduction, much like it did in the 1990s. But this will require moving the national economic debate beyond its near-total preoccupation with federal budget restraint.
Yes, fiscal restraint is necessary in the medium term to contain financial risks. But unlike in the 1990s, when reduced deficits stimulated investment by bringing down capital costs, fiscal restraint cannot be relied on to provide stimulus now when long-term Treasurys yield less than 2 percent.