I’m going to depart from the normal format, where I talk about the economic realities we face and how we should invest, and instead offer my view of what I think the Trump administration and the GOP-led Congress should do.
But first, let’s look briefly at where we are now—at the constraining facts that any economic proposal must take into consideration.
The US’ debt spree
Total US debt, including private and business debt, is $67 trillion, or just under 400% of GDP. We have 95 million people not in the labor force. 15 million of them are not employed. That’s twice the number officially unemployed.
We have almost 2 million prison inmates, 43 million living in poverty, 43 million receiving food stamps, 57 million Medicare enrollees, and 73 million Medicaid recipients—and 31 million still remain without health insurance..
The US federal government debt will be slightly north of $20 trillion before Obama leaves office in January. Local and state debt is another $3 trillion. That is a total of more than $23 trillion of government debt. The US economy will be a few hundred billion dollars under $19 trillion at the end of this year. That is a debt-to-GDP ratio of somewhat over 121%.
That debt has risen roughly $10 trillion under Obama, in just eight years. Last year, the debt rose $1.4 trillion, even though we were told that the budget deficit was less than $600 billion.
This US debt total does not even take into account the over $100 trilliion of unfunded liabilities at local, state, and federal levels. These are going to have to be paid for at some point.
A drag on our growth
I bring up the size of the debt because unproductive debt is a limiting factor on growth. 10 years ago, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Today, it is. The more we increase our debt, the more difficult it is going to be to grow our way out of our problem with the debt.
That’s just an empirical fact.
Both Europe and Japan have much larger debt ratios than we do, and both have much slower growth rates. Note also that the velocity of money in both those regions is much lower than ours, and the velocity of money in every developing portion of the world continues to drop. (More about that below.)
Something like $5.5 trillion is “intergovernmental debt.” The theoretical Social Security trust fund is an example. We “owe it to ourselves,” and so many economists simply deduct that money when they talk about the size of the total debt. And technically, it is true that we pay interest on that debt, which comes back to the government. But that doesn’t mean those debts aren’t going have to be paid.
For economists to talk about this portion of the debt as irrelevant is economic malpractice. It is smoke and mirrors economics of the worst kind. But even if we did dismiss $5.5 trillion dollars of internal debt, the government’s debt-to-GDP ratio would still be almost 100% when you include state and local debt.
And that is definitely in the range where all the data and economic analysis suggests that debt is a detriment and a drag on growth.
“Deficits don’t matter”
Vice President Dick Cheney once remarked that “Deficits don’t matter” as he defended his spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
And when he said it, he was more or less correct. Then, the deficit as a percentage of GDP was less than nominal GDP growth, which meant that the country was growing faster than the debt was. (Later, it turned out that deficits did matter when the spending on everything else plus defense spun out of control.)
And for those people who say that tax cuts create growth, I would suggest that 2% growth for 16 years is not exactly what we were expecting. And much of the growth we did get during the housing bubble years was clearly spurious.
Yes, the US economy has grown at something like an average 2% for the last 16 years. Inflation was higher in the early years, but now it is about 1.5%, which gives us nominal GDP growth of about 3.5%. Total debt this year rose by 6.8%, or almost double our growth rate. Not the right direction.
After eight years of the slowest economic recovery in history, we are growing our debt dramatically faster than we are growing our country—even when we include inflation.
What should Trump do?
Republicans want to cut corporate and individual taxes to help stimulate growth. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition to stimulate growth. Significant regulatory rollback will help. It is also necessary but not sufficient.
Fixing the Affordable Care Act and bringing costs and benefits into alignment is another necessary but not sufficient condition for growth.
So here’s what I see as the only way forward if we want to dodge a deep recession and/or a greater crisis in the future.
- Cut the corporate tax rate to 15% on all income over $100,000. No deductions for anything. Period. A 10% tax rate on all net foreign income (with allowances for taxes paid against total income.) That will make us the most tax-friendly business nation in the world. International companies will not only move their headquarters here, they will bring their manufacturing and jobs with them.
- Cut the individual tax rate to 20% for all income over $100,000. No deductions for anything. Period. No mortgage deduction, no charitable deductions. No nothing. Anybody who makes less than $100,000 will not pay income taxes and will not file. This will dramatically promote entrepreneurial activity and help small businesses.
- We must make a serious effort to have a balanced budget and to fund healthcare and Social Security. That requires money. I would propose some form of a value-added tax (VAT) that would specifically pay for Social Security and healthcare.
- Policy wonks are going to note that you would not need a 15% VAT just for healthcare. I would propose that we eliminate Social Security funding from both the individual and business side of the equation and take those costs from the VAT.
This would be a huge stimulus to the economy. Plus, VAT taxes can be deducted by businesses at the border when they export products. This would make us competitive with every other country in the world whose companies also deduct VATs at the border.
- We need to jumpstart the economy. So I do think we need infrastructure spending, but I would do it a little bit differently. I would create an Infrastructure Commission that would authorize federally guaranteed bonds for cities, counties, and states. Read more here.
- Roll back as many rules and regulations as possible. I would instruct every cabinet member to find—every year four years—5% of the rules and regulations within their purview and eliminate them. If they want to write a new rule, they have to find an old one to eliminate.
- Trump will have two immediate appointments to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. He will have another two in another year, giving him four out of the seven governors. I would also imagine that, given the ambitions of some of the other current governors, they will opt for the much higher income available in private practice. Having a Federal Reserve that is more neutral in its policy making and that realizes that the role of the Fed should be to provide liquidity in times of major crisis and not to fine tune the economy, will do much to balance out the future.
- Getting trade right will be tricky. It is one thing to talk about unfair trade agreements—and we have certainly signed a few. But we also need to recognize that some 11.5 million jobs in the US are dependent upon exports (about 40% of which are services). Frankly, if we drop our corporate tax to 15% and work on reducing the regulatory burden, I think we will be pleasantly surprised by how many jobs are created just by those steps alone.
- As I look around the world I see other countries experiencing or getting ready to experience economic stress that is going to force them to allow their currencies to weaken against the dollar. The euro is already down by over 30%. The potential crisis in Italy could easily push the euro below parity. I can imagine a time when we will see some strange new policies being suggested because of the competitive pressures exerted by a strengthening dollar.
Let me be very clear. If we don’t get the debt and deficit under control—and by that I mean that at a minimum we bring the annual increase in the national debt to below the level of nominal GDP growth—we will simply postpone an inevitable crisis. We have $100 trillion of unfunded liabilities that are going to come due in the next few decades. We have to get the entitlement problem figured out. And we must do it without blowing out the debt.
If we don’t, we will have a financial crisis that will rival the Great Depression. Not this year or next year, and probably not in Trump’s first term… but within 10 years? Very possibly, if we stay on our present trajectory.