The economic mess and policy.

Median income, adjusted for inflation, is about $3,600 less than when President George W. Bush entered the White House and about $2,100 less than when President Obama entered the White House. America has not recovered from the “Great Recession.” We are rolling up on fifteen years of falling incomes after a long period of rising incomes. In contrast, upper income groups are seeing their wealth and incomes rise. Something is wrong.

What do economists suggest about reviving economic growth? They suggest improving education because America has lost its one-time enormous lead over other nations in terms of human capital. They suggest improving our crumbling infrastructure because roads, bridges, airports, and telecommunications are all falling behind needs. They suggest sorting out the messy tax code to reduce distortions in economic activity. They suggest cutting the cost of health care, which drags on the economy and cuts down money wages.[1]

The problem with these sorts of policies is that they will take a long time to play out, have an uncertain effect, and are complicated to understand. Hence, both side look for nostrums that look good on a bumper sticker. For Republicans, the solution tends to be cuts in taxes on high income-earners and corporations. These are the “job creators.”

What do the Democrats want to do to raise stagnant incomes among middle-class “workers”?[2] Well, they haven’t done much for quite a stretch so far as voters can tell. It should surprise no one if lots of them sit out an election. To counteract this trend, Democrats have adopted the cause of a higher minimum wage. In the near future they may turn to a “middle-class tax cut.” It seems most likely that this “cut” would actually take the form of “tax-credits.” These could be presented as tax incentives to save for retirement or for college education. Democrats favor paying for these cuts through higher taxes on upper-incomes. This would be popular with most Americans, who want more money for themselves and resent wealthy people.

How likely is this to happen? On one sense, very likely. The anti-tax frenzy that has gripped America for several decades has led to all Americans paying lower taxes than the historical trend since the Second World War. President Obama was happy to make most of the Bush-era tax cuts permanent.

In another sense, very unlikely. Such policies would have to pass through the House of Representatives. According to one analysis, the House is almost certain to remain in the hands of Republicans for the next decade. Only 28 of the Republicans’ 244 House seats are in districts that voted for President Obama in 2012. The Democrats now hold 188 seats. If all of those seats were moved from Republican to Democrat candidates, then the two parties would tie in the House. Such a shift is very unlikely, given the advantages of incumbents and the unreliable turn-out among Democratic voters. For the last decade American politics has see-sawed between Republicans and Democrats, but what Americans seem to like is a divided government that can’t accomplish anything.

David Leonhardt, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics,” NYT, 11 November 20014.

Nate Cohn, “The Enduring Republican Grip on the House,” NYT, 11 November 2014.

[1] In fact, health care costs have stopped rising and in some cases have fallen. The reasons for this are subject to debate. It seems unlikely that the Affordable Care Act has anything to do with this—yet.

[2] OK, I’ll leave aside the whole issue of how “workers” used to mean “blue-collar.” Don’t want to suggest that America is really confused about the whole issue of social class.

 

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