Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Opinion

Column: Drop in growth portends future of stagnation, or worse

RECOMMENDED READING


WASHINGTON

When the history is written, I suspect the brutal budget battle transfixing the nation will be seen as much more than a spectacular partisan showdown. Careful historians will, I think, cast it as a symbolic turning point for post-World War II institutions — mainly the welfare state and the consumer credit complex — that depended on strong economic growth that has now, sadly, gone missing. The story behind the story is that prolonged slow growth threatens historic changes to our political and social order.

Economic growth is a wondrous potion. It encourages lending because borrowers can repay from rising incomes. It supports bigger government because a growing economy expands the tax base and makes modest deficits bearable. Despite recessions, it buoys public optimism because people are getting ahead. The presumption of strong economic growth supported the spirit and organizational structures of postwar America.

Everyday life was transformed. Credit cards, home equity loans, 30-year mortgages, student loans and long-term auto loans (more than two years) became common. In 1955, household debt was 49 percent of Americans' disposable income; by 2007, it was 137 percent. Government moved from the military-industrial complex to the welfare state. In 1955, defense spending was 62 percent of federal outlays, and spending on "human resources" (the welfare state) was 22 percent. By 2012, the figures were reversed; welfare was 66 percent, defense 19 percent. Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Pell grants and Social Security's disability program are all postwar creations.

Slow economic growth now imperils this postwar order. Credit standards have tightened, and more Americans are leery of borrowing. Government spending — boosted by an aging population eligible for Social Security and Medicare — has outrun our willingness to be taxed. The mismatch is the basic cause of "structural" budget deficits and, by extension, today's strife over the debt ceiling and the government "shutdown."

The temptation is to think that stronger economic growth will ultimately rescue us and make choices easier. This is economic growth's appeal. It provides the extra income to buy more of what we want. We explain the weak economy as the hangover from the financial crisis and the Great Recession. Their legacy of caution and pessimism will, with time, dissipate. The economy will strengthen. This is plausible.

But it's equally plausible that slow growth will persist. We rebel at the notion. As economist Stephen D. King writes in his book When the Money Runs Out — The End of Western Affluence:

"Our societies are not geared for a world of very low growth. Our attachment to the Enlightenment idea of ongoing progress — a reflection of persistent postwar economic success — has left us with little knowledge or understanding of worlds in which rising prosperity is no longer guaranteed."

Lindsey attributes U.S. economic growth to four factors: (a) greater labor force participation, mainly by women; (b) better educated workers, as reflected in increased high school and college graduation rates; (c) more invested "capital" per worker (that's machines and computers); and (d) technological and organizational innovation. The trouble, he writes, is that "all growth components have fallen off simultaneously."

Take women's labor force participation. From 1950 to 2000, it surged from 30.9 percent to 59.9 percent; but in 2012, it was 57.7 percent, with the falloff starting before the recession. Some older women are retiring; some younger women are staying home. High school and college graduation rates have leveled off and, in some cases, declined. Business investment rates have also dropped. It seems that "only a surge in innovation can keep U.S. economic growth from faltering," writes Lindsey. But innovation, too, has weakened.

Admittedly, predictions like these aren't infallible. Actual growth could exceed expectations. Still, slow growth is more than scare talk. When adjusted for population increases, it reduces per capita income gains to 1 percent to 1.5 percent annually, Lindsey calculates. That's half to three-quarters the historical rate. The amount is small enough to be skimmed off by rising taxes, higher health insurance premiums or growing inequality. For many households, it would mean stagnation or worse.

What looms — it's already occurred in Europe — is a more contentious future. Economic growth serves as social glue that neutralizes other differences. Without it, economic and political competition becomes a game of musical chairs, where "one person's gain is another's loss," King writes. There's a "breakdown of trust," as expectations are continually disappointed. It's an often ugly process that is convincingly confirmed by Washington's current political firestorm.

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Comments

Another voice: Time for Republicans to denounce this tax nonsense

Mick Mulvaney, the phony deficit hawk President Donald Trump tapped to oversee the nationís budget, all but admitted on Sunday that the GOP tax plan currently before the Senate is built on fiction. Senators from whom the public should expect more ó s...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Editorial: Florida should restore online access to nursing home inspections

Editorial: Florida should restore online access to nursing home inspections

In a state with the nationís highest portion of residents over 65 years old and more than 80,000 nursing home beds, public records about those facilities should be as accessible as possible. Yet once again, Florida is turning back the clock to the da...
Published: 11/20/17

Another voice: A time of reckoning on sexual misconduct

Stories about powerful men engaging in sexual misconduct are becoming so common that, as with mass shootings, the country is in danger of growing inured to them. But unlike the tragic news about that latest deranged, murderous gunman, the massive out...
Published: 11/20/17
Editorial: Fighting the opioid crisis on many fronts

Editorial: Fighting the opioid crisis on many fronts

From birth to death, opioid addiction is ravaging the lives of thousands of Floridians. Drugmakers, doctors, state lawmakers and insurance companies all have a role to play in slowing the epidemic. Lately some more responsible answers, including mill...
Updated: 5 hours ago

Editorial: Good for Tampa council member Frank Reddick to appeal for community help to solve Seminole Heights killings

As the sole black member of the Tampa City Council, Frank Reddick was moved Thursday to make a special appeal for help in solving four recent murders in the racially mixed neighborhood of Southeast Seminole Heights. "Iím pleading to my brothers. You ...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Itís time to renew communityís commitment to Tampa Theatre

Editorial: Itís time to renew communityís commitment to Tampa Theatre

New attention to downtown Tampa as a place to live, work and play is transforming the area at a dizzying pace. Credit goes to recent projects, both public and private, such as the Tampa River Walk, new residential towers, a University of South Florid...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

The Rays definitely like Ybor City, and Ybor City seems to like the Rays. So what could possibly come between this match made in baseball stadium heaven? Hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of millions of dollars. Rays owner Stu Sternberg told Times...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Wage hike for contractorsí labor misguided

Editorial: Wage hike for contractorsí labor misguided

St. Petersburg City Council members are poised to raise the minimum wage for contractors who do business with the city, a well-intended but misguided ordinance that should be reconsidered. The hourly minimum wage undoubtedly needs to rise ó for every...
Published: 11/16/17

Editorial: Make workplaces welcoming, not just free of harassment

A federal trial began last week in the sex discrimination case that a former firefighter lodged against the city of Tampa. Tanja Vidovic describes a locker-room culture at Tampa Fire Rescue that created a two-tier system ó one for men, another for wo...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Krisemanís new term

Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Krisemanís new term

Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him. It seems Krisemanís own mantra of "moving St. Pete forwar...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17