Monday, September 27, 2010

Questions for a Monday Morning

Beginning in 1961 with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the United States government has basically operated from a “Keynesian” economic philosophy. The economists that Kennedy brought into his administration were avowedly Keynesian and the Kennedy tax cuts that followed were developed from a Keynesian model.

This has been a bi-partisan effort and Republicans are as guilty as anyone in terms of the emphasis upon stimulative government budgets. President Richard M. Nixon confessed in the early 1970s that “we are all Keynesians, now!”

Government economic policy was written into legislation beginning with the The Employment Act, Act of Feb. 20, 1946 which was followed by the Humphrey-Hawkins Employment Act, the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, enacted in October 1978. Congress enacted laws that required the government to produce economic growth policies that were aimed at high levels of employment.

A growing economy and high levels of employment became a necessary goal of any presidential candidate running for election (“Get the economy growing again,” and “It’s the economy, stupid!”) or for re-election.

And, what was the result?

Since 1960 through 2009 the United States economy has grown at an average annual compound rate of growth of around 3.2%. Economists in the 1960s calculated that full-employment growth in the economy was about 3.2% and so economic policy was targeting a potential for growth in the United States economy of 3.2%.

If, after 50 years, these economists were to look back they might be astounded that the economy grew roughly at what they presumed to be the rate at which the economy could potentially grow during that time period.

Yet, not all is well with the world.

These economists could argue that fiscal policy really worked. The gross federal debt grew at an average annual rate of more than 9% during this 50 year period. Fiscal policy must have worked?

Financial innovation in the United States government was astounding during this period. As Niall Ferguson has claimed in several of his history books that governments have always been the number one innovator in finance historically. The United States government certainly proved this to be true over the last 50 years.

Certainly, credit inflation was the name of the game during this time period as the private sector came to emulate the government sector in terms of creating financial innovation and financial leverage became the necessary means of competition for firms to gain an edge in financial performance.

On the way to the bank, however, certain other things happened…and these raise some serious questions.

During all of this time period, in the United States industrial sector, capacity utilization went from over 90% of capacity to about 75% of capacity. If growth was proceeding at 3.2% a year, how come our industrial base has been used less and less over this period?
Also, the big concern in terms of unemployment was that we reach and sustain a 4% unemployment rate. Yet the unemployment rate has progressively increased and the under-employment rate, hardly different from the unemployment rate in the 1960s, is now above 20%. Why hasn’t the economic stimulus put more people to work?

Housing, which used to be the backbone of the private sector is now primarily the realm of the federal government. Who owns most of the mortgages in the country?

In the 1960s there were over 14,000 commercial banks in the United States. Now, there are less than 8,000 and, in my view, we are going to 4,000 in the next several years.

We had a vibrant sector of thrift institutions in the 1960s. By the end of the 1980s the thrift industry was almost gone. By the end of 2011, the thrift industry will be gone. This was the result of sound fiscal policies?

Income inequality has risen dramatically over the last 50 years. We have found out that the wealthy or the financially savvy can protect themselves during times of inflation and credit inflation. The blue collar worker, the less financially sophisticated, the middle class cannot protect themselves nearly as well during times when hedging or speculation becomes the way to financial wealth. Weren’t the Keynesian policies supposed to help the less well off by keeping them employed?

The “piggy bank” that the middle class and finally the less-well-off were supposed to exploit and protect themselves against inflation and lead them into a better financial future eventually busted. Housing was the “piggy bank” that many were supposed to ride to retirement leisure. But, falling house prices and foreclosures are turning the dream of many into nightmares? Couldn’t credit inflation keep this ball in the air?

There are many other question going around right now. The concern is the validity of the economic model that has been the foundation of our economic policies over the past 50 years. It appears as if we got the economic growth. What happened to all the other benefits we were supposed to receive once we achieved this economic growth?

No comments: