Popular Economics Weekly
Second quarter GDP came in at a 2.6 percent annualized growth rate. This is one of the best showings of the last 2 years and keeps overall growth at 2 percent; because first quarter’s growth was downwardly revised to 1.2 percent. And Q3 growth isn’t looking good, as June personal income and expenditures (PCE) just took a huge plunge—not a good omen for Q3.
June PCE income was unchanged and May revised 1 tenth lower to a 0.3 percent gain. Consumer spending was up 0.1 percent gain. Price data are flat, unchanged in the month with the core rate (less food and energy) up 0.1 percent for a second weak month in a row. The real problem is weak wage growth, as most jobs being created are in low wage industries, like hospitality and even healthcare. Year-on-year, overall prices are up only 1.4 percent with the core little better at 1.5 percent.
What is wrong with the U.S. economy that it can’t grow faster? Nothing, really, given almost no productivity growth, and an aging population. This is maximum speed without an increase in productivity, in other words, and that won’t happen unless some of the $4.6T in deferred infrastructure spending gets done.
Can you imagine what new highways, bridges, airports, energy infrastructure, city and state water treatment facilities would do to productivity growth? Labor productivity rose at an average annual rate of 3-1/4 percent from 1948 to 1973, says the Federal Reserve, whereas, the average growth rate of productivity was about 1.7 percent in the period 1974 to 2016.
“If labor productivity grows an average of 2 percent per year,” said Fed Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer in a recent speech, “average living standards for our children’s generation, will be twice what we experienced. If labor productivity grows an average of 1 percent per year, living standards will take two generations to double.”
“Governments can take sensible actions to promote more rapid productivity growth,” continued Fischer. “Broadly speaking, government policy works best when it can address a need that the private sector neglects, including investment in basic research, infrastructure, early childhood education, schooling, and public health.”
But construction spending also dropped in June—1.3 percent, mainly highways and streets in the government sector. Construction spending in manufacturing was also down. Doesn’t congress realize this is a sign that infrastructure expenditures are going down, rather than rising? This should be the priority, not attempting to repeal Obamacare, or cut taxes.
Our deficit problems would be solved if congress would focus on policies that really matter—like increasing spending on factors that enhance productivity, which would in turn increase GDP growth, which would in turn lower the budget deficit and obviate the need for draconian tax cuts.
“Reasonable people can disagree about the right way forward, but if we as a society are to succeed, we need to follow policies that will support and advance productivity growth. That is easier said than done. But it can be done,” says Fischer.
Economists such a Stanley Fischer know how this is done. In fact, we can only really survive as a viable democracy if we listen to the experts, rather than political ideologues.
Harlan Green © 2017
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