Popular Economics Weekly
Pundits have decried it. Donald Trump has criticized the ‘lousy’ U.S. economy in many of his Tweets, and economists have lamented the 2.4 percent GDP growth rate since 2000, at the time of the dot-com bubble bust. This is when prior recoveries have averaged 3-4 percent growth—at least in the early years.
The agonizingly slow pace of recovery from the Great Recession is easy to explain, say most economists. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a labor think tank, recently said it best. It is the result of austerity policies championed by Republican policymakers at the federal and state levels.
“Like every other postwar recession before it, the Great Recession was caused by a shortfall in aggregate demand, meaning that the spending of households, businesses, and governments was not sufficient to keep the economy’s resources fully employed,” said the EPI.
Per capita government spending in the first quarter of 2016—27 quarters into the recovery—was nearly 3.5 percent lower than it was at the trough of the Great Recession. By contrast, 27 quarters into the early 1990s recovery, per capita government spending was 3 percent higher than at the trough; 23 quarters following the early 2000s recession (a shorter recovery), it was 10 percent higher; and 27 quarters into the early 1980s recovery, it was 17 percent higher.
What is aggregate demand, and how is it increased? FDR’s incredibly intelligent Fed Chairman Marriner Eccles explained it in his memoir Beckoning Frontiers (1951):
“As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth … to provide men with buying power. … Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. … The other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.”
He understood our U.S. economy was entering the era of mass consumption, and unless consumers plus businesses plus government spent and/or invested enough money in it, there would be little or no growth. If fact, it was the severity of the contraction in spending that caused both the Great Depression and Great Recession.
And because there was record income inequality in 1929—only equaled again in 2007—consumers ran out of money to spend, which meant in turn businesses stopped investing. So it had to be government that injected sufficient demand into the U.S. economy to keep it from collapsing completely. That was the reason for the New Deal that employed millions in government-paid jobs, as well as social security, unemployment insurance and all the social programs that enabled US to win WWII.
The pickup in government spending in the early 2000s recession and 1980s recovery were during Republican administrations (i.e., during GW Bush and Reagan presidencies), which meant they had no problem spending public monies to boost economic growth. But when it came to Obama’s term, every attempt was made by the mostly Republican House in particular to cause him to fail.
It began with the election of some 80 Tea Party members to the House in 2010, then government shutdown in 2011 when they refused to ok a budget, so that the U.S. government almost ran out of operating funds, resulting in the first loss of AAA rating for U.S. debt by a bond rating agency in modern history.
That is why real annual GDP growth during Reagan’s term peaked at 7.3 percent, and GW Bush’s term at 3.8 percent. The highest modern growth rate was achieved during FDR’s New Deal and WWII, which boosted U.S. growth to a peak of 18.9 percent in 1942. Real GDP growth (i.e,, after inflation) has been downhill ever since.
As CBS News recently wrote in a report entitled, Obama May Become First President Since Hoover Not to See 3% GDP Growth: “The last year that real GDP grew by 3.0 percent or more, according to BEA, was in 2005, when it grew by 3.3 percent. Since then, the United States has gone a record ten straight years (2006-2015) without a year in which the growth in real GDP was at least 3.0 percent.”
So in fact without government spending to boost demand during slow times our economy has suffered. And now President-elect Trump has proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan that is sure to boost growth again.
“Despite the Great Recession being the sharpest and longest on record since World War II,” wrote the EPI, “and despite monetary policy reaching its conventional limits to boost spending early in the recession, policymakers made damaging decisions to limit public spending following the recession’s trough in 2009. This growth has been historically slow relative to other business cycles even as the economy needed substantially faster-than-average growth to mount a full and timely recovery.”
So let the record show, government has never been the problem when Republicans needed to boost growth, only when Democrats do. What is wrong with this picture?
Harlan Green © 2016
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