More than a half century after Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, President Joe Biden is planning to take on the nation’s enduring challenge of inequality with a mass expansion of government spending and a revamp of the tax code.
The effort, which Biden will start to detail in a speech Wednesday in Pittsburgh, is already proving just as divisive among economists as it is among lawmakers. While right-leaning economists warn about damage to overall growth from higher taxes on companies and the wealthiest Americans, liberals say the “trickle-down” approach of recent decades has failed and it’s time for a new strategy.
The president’s remarks will lay out the infrastructure portion of an overall package expected to total more than US$3 trillion. While social-spending programs will be outlined later in April, the administration’s drive to expand help for the poor will be visible even in infrastructure, through proposals such as the provision of safe drinking water.
“It’s important to acknowledge that we’ve seen decades of this rising economic inequality,” Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said last week in an interview with Bloomberg Radio. “The ultimate measure of success of the economy is how well it’s working for people all across these United States.”
For many, it’s not working well. The gaps between the richest Americans and the middle class, along with the lowest-income households, widened in the years before the pandemic struck — even amid the longest U.S. expansion on record. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell is among those agreeing that inequality holds the economy back, something that contributed to the overhaul in long-term monetary policy strategy he’s instituted.
Halting or reversing the trend even with major changes in policy won’t come easily or quickly, economists widely agree.
“You’re turning a supertanker, and it’s taken us a generation and half to get here,” said Brad Delong, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “But, yes, you can start to turn the supertanker.”
No single statistic captures the problem, but simple dispersions of wealth and income tell a discouraging tale:
- Average incomes for the top 5 per cent of households were quadruple those of the middle fifth of Americans in 1979. That swelled to 5.7 times as much in 2007 and further to 6.6 times by 2018, U.S. Census data compiled by the Tax Policy Center show.
- The net worth of the top 10 per cent of households in 1989 was 9.4 times that of the middle fifth, according to Fed data compiled by the Tax Policy Center. That increased to 13 times by 2007 and 17 times by 2017.
- The share of total income going to upper-income households — defined as double the median level — surged to 48 per cent from 29 per cent from 1970 to 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Middle-income households’ share of total earnings dropped to 43 per cent from 62 per cent.
Americans have long accepted some level of inequality, given the rationale that it reflects the rewards for hard work, risk-taking and ingenuity. Yet for researchers like John Friedman, an economics professor at Brown University, the problem is not just about outcomes.
“It’s not just that there’s growing inequality from an ex-post perspective, but there’s tremendous inequality of opportunity,” he said.
He points to data showing how children who display similar academic abilities at very young ages, but come from different income and racial backgrounds and varying types of neighborhoods end up with very different outcomes when it comes to incomes and career advancement.
“It’s not just about who’s smart,” Friedman said. “And there’s almost universal agreement that having your life possibilities determined by the accident of your birth is not something we’re OK with.”
But economists are in sharp disagreement on whether Biden’s economic agenda will be well-aimed at addressing inequalities. One example: Biden is expected to propose free tuition at the nation’s community colleges.
Glenn Hubbard, a Columbia University professor who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, has called community colleges “the logical workhorses of skill development.”
But in an interview, Hubbard said the free-tuition idea gets it “exactly backward” by subsidizing the demand for community colleges. He backs a supply-side concept of federal grants to those schools that are contingent on better graduation rates and employment outcomes after graduation.
And that’s not strictly a conservative approach. The proposal’s co-authors included Austan Goolsbee, who served as CEA chair under Democratic President Barack Obama.
There’s a wider divide over Biden’s tax policy.
Higher taxes on companies and the rich will only weaken the dynamic of wealth accumulation that drives investment, which in turn powers economic growth, conservatives argue.
“In this debate, there is a fair element of ‘We just need to punish the rich; they are rich inappropriately,’” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative research group. “With that, it’s hard to get agreement on policy.”
Liberal economists respond unapologetically, that so-called trickle-down economics — where overall economic growth lifts all boats across the income spectrum — just haven’t proved true over the last 40 years.
Spending on investment outside of housing rose an average of 3.4 per cent a year from 2000 through 2019, down from 5.2 per cent the prior two decades and a heady 7.2 per cent in the 1960s — when tax rates were substantially higher.
Companies have the cash to grow, but with wealth and income skewed to the top, “there’s not enough customers to buy the new output,” said Josh Bivens, director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Restarting a sustainable, export-oriented economy – Business in Vancouver
Clean, sustainable products and services will be key to B.C.’s economic recovery | Chung Chow
This column was originally published in BIV Magazine‘s Trade issue.
As B.C. looks to restart its economy, the demand for our province’s clean and sustainable products and services is surging across a variety of sectors, demonstrating the key role that trade will play in our economic recovery.
Exports increased 24% year-to-date for April – that’s up $3 billion over the same time last year. It’s a big boost for the provincial economy, with a majority of our exports being commodities in great demand. Our stringent environmental standards in wood exports, burgeoning clean tech sector and high standards in labour protections mean that when other markets buy from us, they’re also contributing to a cleaner and more socially responsible global economy.
B.C. was committed to international trade long before the pandemic. It creates new opportunities for businesses, and more importantly, it creates good jobs and prosperity for people in B.C. When businesses export, they are more resilient. Access to more markets means they have a more diverse customer base and aren’t as impacted by fluctuations in their local economies.
We have a program perfectly designed to help small businesses get their goods and services to new markets. It’s called Export Navigator. This program offers businesses free expert guidance on exporting. Businesses get connected with an expert advisor who will help “navigate” them through the export process. It’s hugely beneficial, helping businesses reach new customers for the first time and making the process a lot easier along the way.
We continue to support B.C. businesses in other ways as well. For example, we developed a series of grant programs to meet their unique needs, making over half a billion dollars available in direct supports. The Launch Online program helps businesses improve their online presence to attract and keep customers and meet demand as online shopping hit new heights during the pandemic. The Supply Chain and Value-Added Manufacturing grant helps B.C.-based manufacturers in the aerospace, shipbuilding, food processing and forestry sectors recover and grow, supporting them to seek efficiencies to continually keep goods flowing into the marketplace.
From natural resources and agrifoods to manufactured goods and high-tech goods and services, B.C. has a lot to offer to the world. We are a responsible, low-carbon producer of natural resources and manufactured goods, and we are working hard to make sustainability a larger part of B.C.’s brand and our global competitive advantage. Our priority is to help B.C.-based businesses start up, scale up, access global markets and succeed in the highly competitive world marketplace. The more we export, the more new dollars we bring into B.C. and generate revenue that supports government investments in health care, education and critical infrastructure.
We stand behind the high-quality goods that B.C. has to offer to the world. Globally, companies large and small are increasingly applying environmental, social and governance filters to their investment decisions. We are committed to growing our economy in a sustainable way, and are working on a new trade diversification strategy that will provide us with the opportunity to develop an updated, forward-looking and ambitious approach that aligns closely with these principles, while ensuring that our exporting businesses are maximizing the opportunities afforded to them through Canada’s existing free trade agreements. Our recently announced Mass Timber Demonstration Program is an example of how we are advancing technologies that can showcase to the world the possibilities of building with a more sustainable and environmentally friendly product from B.C.
The pandemic leaves behind many lessons and creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity for B.C. to redefine itself. We know the pandemic is not impacting everyone equally, with women and visible minorities being disproportionately impacted. This is why we are committed to continuing to grow strong, robust industries that can provide good jobs for all of B.C.’s diverse populations.
Growth in trade will be a big part of our economic recovery, and as we transition through our restart plan, we will continue to engage with businesses, industry and key stakeholders to ensure we’re supporting their efforts to expand globally.
Our goal is to diversify our trade sectors to include not just our natural resources, but clean tech, high tech, agritech and advanced manufacturing. We need to support our exporters and encourage new exporters to expand our opportunities in global markets and strengthen our resilience.
We’re committed to invest in people and in businesses to restore economic growth and we are confident that the entrepreneurial spirit of B.C.’s business community will rise to the challenge as we work together to build a better future with meaningful jobs and a strong, sustainable economy for all.
Ravi Kahlon is B.C.’s minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation. George Chow is the province’s minister of state for trade.
This column was originally published in the July 2021 issue of BIV Magazine. The digital magazine can be read in full here.
ECB Lifts Restrictions on Bank Dividends as Economy Rebounds – Bloomberg
The European Central Bank said it will lift a cap on how much lenders can return to shareholders with dividends and share buybacks, while urging them to remain cautious given uncertainty in the pandemic.
The ECB “decided not to extend beyond September 2021 its recommendation that all banks limit dividends,” the central bank said in a statement on Friday. “Instead, supervisors will assess the capital and distribution plans of each bank as part of the regular supervisory process.”
Reopening economy buoys B.C.’s job market – Business in Vancouver
B.C.’s labour market outperformed most of the country in June with a 1.6% (42,100-person) monthly gain and outpaced the national increase of 1.2%.
The province moved through steps 1 and 2 of its restart plan, highlighted by the reopening of restaurant in-house dining and larger organized events, travel and other recreation. The labour market has fully recovered employment losses from the previous two months, exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 0.6%. The latter marks the best performance among all Canadian provinces, reflecting shallower economic restrictions from the pandemic, solid performances in the commodities and technology sectors and a robust housing market.
However, full-time work has similarly lagged, with levels 1.6% lower than in February 2020, while part-time work rose 9%. B.C.’s unemployment rate fell to 6.6% from 7% in May and marked the lowest level since the pandemic began.
Metro Vancouver performance was consistent with employment growth of 1.5%, although unemployment remained higher at 7.4% of the labour force.
There was strong rehiring for accommodation/foodservices (up 12%) employees as dining restrictions were largely lifted. This contributed half of the net monthly increase. Significant gains were also recorded in finance/insurance/real estate (up 4.1%), health care/social assistance (up 3%) and business/building/other support (up 5%). Gains align with broader business and office reopenings. A drop in resource employment and construction were partial offsets to services-driven growth.
Hiring momentum will continue with Stage 3 of the restart plan underway, which allows for larger events, fairs and trade shows, reopenings of casinos and normalization of fitness classes and gyms, while domestic tourism partly offsets international travel restrictions.
The Lower Mainland’s housing frenzy continued to cool through June as affordability erosion and satiation of demand pulled forward by the pandemic cut sales. Meanwhile, both buyers and sellers are likely taking a step back to pivoting attention to other activities as social restrictions ease.
Multiple Listing Service sales spanning Metro Vancouver and Abbotsford- Mission (Lower Mainland) reached 6,007 units last month. While still up a lofty 46% from a year ago, this is compared with a 217% increase in May. •
Bryan Yu is chief economist at Central 1 Credit Union.
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