Popular Economics Weekly
There is a current debate whether the U.S. will escape the ‘new normal’ of slower economic growth since the Great Recession, when American households lost a collective $9 trillion in value and consumers cut back on their spending to make up for the losses.
It is part of the debate among economists whether the U.S. and other so-called ‘mature’ economies are locked into what is called secular stagnation, an era where markets can no longer expand enough to boost economic growth that benefits all segments of the population.
The answer, alas, is slower growth in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, unless the 80 percent of wage-earning consumers find a way to bring back their lost incomes that have barely kept up with inflation since the 1970s, or governments find a way to raise enough taxes to make up for the shortfall in household incomes by funding more public sector benefits, such as increasing the social safety net and public investments in education, infrastructure, and basic research that increase future productivity.
Why have workers’ wages and household incomes remained stagnant for so long? There has been a sharp shift of incomes and wealth away from the working classes to rentiers, or the owners of capital and their managers.
There was a sharp decline in labor productivity since 2007, for the same reason. Along with the Great Recession, businesses invested even more of their profits to enhance their own stock prices (and CEO salaries), rather than in new equipment and factories that would expand labor’s productivity, which is the preferred way to boost workers’ standard of living.
Economists also postulate that economic growth is the sum of the growth rates of labor productivity and population—the working-age population, in particular. The working-age population began its decline as baby boomers began to retire in 2001, and another six million of those workers have elected not to return to work since the Great Recession.
Graph: Seeking Alpha
The above graph illustrates that equation. When the worker population increased—particularly when women and baby boomers entered the workforce from the 1970s onward—the U.S. had 3 percent plus economic growth. But in 2001 the boomers began to retire and we have the current worker shortage.
Real vs. Potential GDP charts as above show the departure from what would be its potential—when GDP growth averaged 3.25 percent, historically. Consumer spending makes up roughly two-thirds of aggregate demand, which is the economic term for total dollars spent for goods and services that make up U.S. Gross Domestic Product. When its other elements—net exports, capital investments, and government expenditures—also decline, we have slower growth, which has been the case since 2007.
Today we have an even worse labor problem—the current White House wants to cut back immigration quotas by 50 percent and deport as many undocumented workers, as possible—including Dreamer children who have grown up in the U.S.—when only immigrants and their offspring will provide enough working age adults to make up for the loss of the baby boomer workforce.
Harlan Green © 2018
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