Lawrence Summers

Time nears for an American tax overhaul

Lawrence Summers
Feb 26, 2012 22:35 UTC

However the U.S. presidential election turns out, the trifecta of the Bush tax cut expiration, the debt limit ceiling on the horizon once again, and the Congressionally mandated sequesters – cuts in domestic spending – will force the president and Congress to wrestle with fiscal issues either in a lame duck session after the election or in early 2013. The decisions they make will have profound impacts on America’s fiscal future.

For many observers, the central question on the table is about entitlement programs: What will be done with them? Growth in entitlement spending associated with our aging population and its rising health care costs is the major factor in overall federal spending growth. But the capacity of near-term policy changes to have large impacts on that spending is less than many would suppose. The rising ratio of retirees to workers means that Social Security benefits at current levels will not be sustainable without some kind of tax increase. Sooner or later, revenue will have to rise or else outlays will have to be curtailed. While it is surely better to act sooner, the reality is that, out of necessity, action on entitlements is inevitable.

While almost everyone agrees on the desirability of containing federal health care spending, this is likely to be more difficult than we’d like to believe. Certainly beneficiaries can bear more of the cost of their government insurance than others, and there are steps like malpractice reform and the further encouragement of preventive medicine that should be taken. Yet without intrusions into the private health care system that are unlikely to be politically acceptable, there are severe limits on what can be done. Otherwise the result will be unacceptable cuts in the availability of care for the clients of federal programs. Given all the uncertainties associated with new technologies, changing lifestyles, and ongoing changes in the private system, health care reform will and should be a continuing project.

But let’s place health care aside for now. Less discussed in the context of major deficit reduction is tax reform. For a variety of reasons, 2013 should be the year when the tax code is overhauled in a substantial way.

First, the United States will need to mobilize more revenue. This year the federal government will collect less than 16% of GDP in taxes—far below the post World War II average. The combination of an aging society, rising health care costs, debt service costs that will skyrocket whenever interest rates normalize, a still-dangerous world in which our allies’ defense spending is falling even as that of potential adversaries rises rapidly, and a growing fraction of the population unable to hold steady work means that in all likelihood federal spending will need to be larger not smaller relative to GDP in the future.

To fix the economy, fix the housing market

Lawrence Summers
Oct 24, 2011 11:00 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The views expressed are his own.

The central irony of financial crisis is that while it is caused by too much confidence, too much borrowing and lending and too much spending, it can only be resolved with more confidence, more borrowing and lending, and more spending.  Most policy failures in the United States stem from a failure to appreciate this truism and therefore to take steps that would have been productive pre-crisis but are counterproductive now, with the economy severely constrained by lack of confidence and demand.

Thus even as the gap between the economy’s production and its capacity increases and is projected to increase further, fiscal policy turns contractionary, financial regulation turns towards a focus on discouraging risk taking, and monetary policy is constrained by concerns about excess liquidity.   Most significantly the nation’s housing policies especially with regard to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–institutions whose very purpose is to mitigate cyclicality in housing and who today dominate the mortgage market–have become a textbook case of disastrous and procyclical policy.

Annual construction of new single family homes has plummeted from the 1.7 million range in the middle of the last decade to the 450 thousand range at present.  With housing starts averaging well over a million during the 1990s, the shortfall in housing construction now projected dwarfs the excess of construction during the bubble period and is the largest single component of the shortfall in GDP.

The jobs crisis

Lawrence Summers
Jun 13, 2011 11:00 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

Even with the massive 2008-2009 policy effort that successfully prevented financial collapse and Depression, the United States is now half way to a lost economic decade. Over the last 5 years, from the first quarter of 2006 to the first quarter of 2011, the U.S. economy’s growth rate averaged less than 1 percent a year, about like Japan during the period when its bubble burst. At the same time the fraction of the population working has fallen from 63.1 to 58.4 percent, reducing the number of those with jobs by more than 10 million. The fraction of the population working remains almost exactly at its recession trough and recent reports suggest that growth is slowing.

Beyond the lack of jobs and incomes, an economy producing below its potential for a prolonged interval sacrifices its future. To an extent that once would have been unimaginable, new college graduates are this month moving back in with their parents because they have no job or means of support. Strapped school districts across the country are cutting out advanced courses in math and science and in some cases only opening school 4 days a week. And reduced incomes and tax collections at present and in the future are the most important cause of unacceptable budget deficits at present and in the future.

You cannot prescribe for a malady unless you diagnose it accurately and understand its causes. Recessions are times when there is too little demand for the products of businesses, and so they fail to employ all those who want to work. That the problem in a period of high unemployment like the present one is a lack of business demand for employees not any lack of desire to work is all but self-evident. It is demonstrated by the observations that (i)the propensity of workers to quit jobs and the level of job openings are at near-record low levels; (ii) rises in nonemployment have taken place among essentially all demographic skill and education groups; and (iii) rising rates of profit and falling rates of wage growth suggest that it is employers, not workers, who have the power in almost every market.