NDN Blog

Lost Decade Narrative Picks Up Steam, NYT Worries About Another

In December, NDN made the decision that the most appropriate term to describe the last decade was as a lost decade for everyday Americans. I blogged on this topic on December 3 and published a white paper on December 17 entitled, A Lost Decade for Everyday Americans.

Since that time, the lost decade narrative has been discussed in a variety of other sources. On Saturday, Neil Irwin in the Washington Post covered the lack of job growth over the last decade:

It was, according to a wide range of data, a lost decade for American workers. The decade began in a moment of triumphalism -- there was a current of thought among economists in 1999 that recessions were a thing of the past. By the end, there were two, bookends to a debt-driven expansion that was neither robust nor sustainable.

There has been zero net job creation since December 1999. No previous decade going back to the 1940s had job growth of less than 20 percent. Economic output rose at its slowest rate of any decade since the 1930s as well.

Middle-income households made less in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999 -- and the number is sure to have declined further during a difficult 2009. The Aughts were the first decade of falling median incomes since figures were first compiled in the 1960s.

Paul Krugman called the decade a “Big Zero,” and yesterday, the New York Times editorialized on the need for the next decade to avoid looking like Japan’s Lost Decade and worried that not enough is being done to avert such a scenario. 

Thankfully, 2009 ended better than it began. Economists talk about green shoots of recovery taking hold. Consumer confidence has improved. Equity markets have soared. But for all the progress, the American economy remains extremely vulnerable.

To understand those economic risks, it is worth considering Japan’s experience in the 1990s. A bursting housing bubble there sparked a banking crisis that was followed by a decade of economic stagnation.

The Japanese government lacked the resolve to do what was necessary. It failed to fix its banks and stopped its early fiscal stimulus before recovery had taken hold, leaving the economy all too vulnerable to outside shocks, including the Asian currency crisis and the dot-com collapse in 2001. Japan’s annual growth rate — which had averaged 4 percent since 1973 — slowed to less than 1 percent, on average, from 1992 to 2003.

While obvious, it bears repeating that American economic policy must, first, account for fact that the last decade was already lost for everyday Americans, and, second, do everything to avoid another one. The economic, social, and political consequences of back-to-back lost decades would be catastrophic, and such a scenario is a legitimate possibility. 

WSJ Graphic: New Companies, Regions Dominate Global Economy

The Wall Street Journal recently published this fascinating graphic (h/t Bill Easterly):


Energy and ICT are truly dominant as this decade comes to a close, and the three largest banks are (with HSBC's headquarters move to Hong Kong)  now based in China. Certainly global competition will only continue to intensify over the next decade. I'd venture a guess that the chart in 10 years will include more Asian companies and perhaps more from Latin America (and fewer from Europe). Will it include an energy company whose business relies on alternatives, or will fossil companies continue to dominate? Will state-owned enterprises continue to grow? Will one be the biggest company in the world? 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Climate Agreement: Rounding-Up Copenhagen

In addition to Michael Moynihan’s must read analysis of the UNFCC COP-15 in Copenhagen, here’s a round-up of some analysis of the climate summit:

Climate Conference Ends in Discord by Fiona Harvey, Ed Crooks and Andrew Ward, FT

The Copenhagen climate conference ended on Saturday without unanimous agreement as the world’s biggest economies backed a limited accord that leaders said would form the basis for a future deal to tackle global warming.

Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, acknowledged that the outcome was “not everything we hoped for” but described it as an “essential beginning” as he brought a close to two weeks of fractious negotiations in the Danish capital.

Talks had continued through Friday night into Saturday morning in a bid to reach consensus on a tentative agreement struck between the US, China and other big emerging economies on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and financing to help developing countries cope with climate change.

But several developing countries, led by Venezuela and Bolivia, refused to endorse the deal, ensuring that the conference would end without an official agreement. Instead, all 193 countries agreed to “take note of the Copenhagen Accord” without committing to accept it.

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord by Robert Stavins, Harvard University 

It is unquestionably the case that the Accord represents the best agreement that could be achieved in Copenhagen, given the political forces at play.  Indeed, were it not for the spirited – and as I suggested above, quite remarkable – direct intervention by President Obama, together with the other key national leaders, there would have been no real outcome from the Copenhagen negotiations.  

Examining the Copenhagen Accord by Michael A Levi, Council on Foreign Relations

The Copenhagen Accord, agreed to on Saturday, is neither earth-shattering nor a failure. It avoids an international political mess that appeared likely as late as Friday afternoon. It falls short of expectations mainly because expectations had been ratcheted up far beyond what was realistic. It is a meaningful step forward, but its ultimate value remains to be determined.

Attention should now turn to elaborating the transparency measures contained in the text, and to implementing ambitious and intelligent domestic emissions-cutting efforts in the major emitting countries. It would be unwise to place significant hopes on converting the deal into a legally-binding pact soon.

The most interesting point to me, though, is what the process in Copenhagen means for Europe. Europe, unquestionably the leading region of the world in addressing climate change, was rendered virtually diplomatically irrelevant by the United States and a group of emerging economies:

An Air of Frustration for Europe at Climate Talks by James Kanter, The New York Times

Mr. Reinfeldt said President Barack Obama had been “very constructive” at the talks, creating a basis for the accord by smoothing over the dispute with China over an international monitoring system for emissions.

Still, the Swedish leader hinted that the Europeans had been caught badly off guard.

Mr. Reinfeldt said he had gotten his first signals that a deal had been struck while still engrossed in meetings.

“We had very tough negotiations two and a half hours after I read on my mobile telephone that we were already done,” he said.


New NDN White Paper: A Lost Decade for Everyday Americans

NDN President Simon Rosenberg just sent out this note alerting people to the release of a new paper from NDN:

In recent weeks, policymakers in Washington have begun to take a new look at the American economy and the increasing struggle of everyday people in this new era of globalization. 

To help inform this conversation, NDN will be releasing a series of targeted "white papers" over the next few months designed to highlight particularly significant aspects of this important debate.  

We proudly release the first in this series, A Lost Decade for Everyday Americans.  This new paper, written by Jake Berliner, Deputy Policy Director of NDN’s Globalization Initiative, makes the point that over the last ten years the typical American family has seen their incomes decline; and, that for many, economic hardship had come long before the recent recession began. 

Read the paper here on the NDN website.

Best regards,
Simon Rosenberg
President, NDN

From the introduction:

To ensure the success of the economic strategy the government adopts next year, it is imperative that the plan accounts for and explains the underlying economic weakness that affected everyday Americans in the years prior to the Great Recession. As this paper illustrates, this past decade in America has been a lost decade for ordinary Americans.

Marked by stagnating wages, declining median household income, rising living costs, abnormally slow job creation, and then capped by the destruction of many trillions of dollars in personal wealth held in housing and stocks, the decade has left most everyday Americans worse off than they were ten years ago. Too little of our national dialogue has focused on the intense struggle of everyday people prior to the Recession, yet understanding that struggle is critical to formulating an adequate response to this great economic challenge.

Read on.

VP Biden Emphasizes Intellectual Property

The White House press office informs us that:

the Vice President will hold a roundtable discussion on this Administration’s commitment to enforcing laws against the piracy of intellectual property.  The Vice President will be joined by Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, FBI Director Robert Mueller, USSS Director Mark Sullivan, as well as CEOs from major media conglomerates, union representatives, legal experts and other government officials.  This White House meeting is the first of its kind, and will bring together all of the stakeholders to discuss ways to combat piracy in this rapidly changing technological age.  

Here at NDN, we've long believed in the need to protect America's intellectual property, one of the key's to our economic strength in the modern idea-based economy. Dr. Rob Shapiro's paper, The Idea-Based Economy and Globalization: The Real Foundations of American Prosperity in the 21st Century, points out that:

In 1984, the market value of the physical assets of the top 150 U.S. public companies – their “book value” – accounted for 75 percent of the total value of their stocks. A firm was worth nearly what its plant, equipment and real estate could be sold for. By 2004, the book value of the top 150 U.S. corporations accounted for 36 percent of the total value of their shares. Nearly two-thirds of the value of large companies now comes from what they know and the ideas and relationships they own.

With that fact in mind, it is easy to see why ensuring that our IP is adequately protected is an important priority for policymakers.

How Wall Street Can Rescue Its Image in the US and Abroad

Back in April, Simon asked an important question:

As the American government struggles with what to do with its new ownership stake in storied corporate brands like AIG, Chrysler, Citigroup and General Motors, one of the fundamental questions that must be asked now is, can these brands - after months of stories about their insolvency - be saved?

Simon wasn't so sure, and neither am I. But if I were an executive at one of these banks, I would be doing everything I could to repair my brand. One of the worst problems these banks have caused is the global impression that America caused an international financial meltdown, which has been, to say the least, bad for both these banks and America’s interests abroad.

So what can they do? Here at NDN, and in particular Sam duPont's Global Mobile blog, we have been covering the role of mobile technology in what the State Department is calling 21st Century Statecraft. One of the most exciting innovations in this space is mobile banking, which Sam has been discussing quite a bit, and I blogged about a year and a half ago. (Sam recently posted a video of Alec Ross, the Senior Advisor on Innovation to Secretary Clinton, discussing this.)  MBanking has the potential to revolutionize standards of living globally by connecting some of the world’s poorest economies to modern financial services without needing to create the physical infrastructure of a bank. 

So here’s my modest proposal to American bankers, a group of people who’ve been particularly good at innovating over the last two decades: Call up State, say you want to build - for free - a modern, mobile communication device based banking system for less developed nations and that you want to put your best people on it. 

Imagine if every time a sizeable percentage of the world’s population did a financial transaction, they knew it was because of the American government and the American financial sector. There’s plenty of profit motive in it for banks, as the additional customers alone would be a boon. Not only would this be great for America’s standing in the world and help these banks repair their image, it would have that nice added benefit of dramatically improving people’s lives.

China's Currency Conundrum Continues

Martin Wolf in the FT sums up nicely the big problem with China’s currency practices:

At the conclusion of a European Union-China summit in Nanjing last week, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, complained about demands for Beijing to allow its currency to appreciate. He protested that “some countries on the one hand want the renminbi to appreciate, but on the other hand engage in brazen trade protectionism against China. This is unfair. Their measures are a restriction on China’s development.” The premier also repeated the traditional mantra: “We will maintain the stability of the renminbi at a reasonable and balanced level.”

We can make four obvious replies to Mr Wen. First, whatever the Chinese may feel, the degree of protectionism directed at their exports has been astonishingly small, given the depth of the recession. Second, the policy of keeping the exchange rate down is equivalent to an export subsidy and tariff, at a uniform rate – in other words, to protectionism. Third, having accumulated $2,273bn in foreign currency reserves by September, China has kept its exchange rate down, to a degree unmatched in world economic history. Finally, China has, as a result, distorted its own economy and that of the rest of the world. Its real exchange rate is, for example, no higher than in early 1998 and has depreciated by 12 per cent over the past seven months, even though China has the world’s fastest-growing economy and largest current account surplus.

Do these policies matter for China and the world? Yes, is the answer. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, notes in a recent speech, that “large and unsustainable current account imbalances across major economic areas were integral to the build-up of vulnerabilities in many asset markets. In recent years, the international monetary system failed to promote timely and orderly economic adjustments.”* He is right.

What we are seeing, as Mr Carney points out, is a failure of adjustment to changes in global competitiveness that has unhappy precedents, notably during the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise of the US, and, again, during the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of Europe and Japan. As he also notes, “China’s integration into the world economy alone represents a much bigger shock to the system than the emergence of the US at the turn of the last century. China’s share of global gross domestic product has increased faster and its economy is much more open.”

Moreover, today, China’s managed exchange rate regime is quite different from those of other big economies, which was not true of the US when it rose to prominence. Thus, China’s managed exchange rate is shifting adjustment pressure on to other countries. This was disruptive before the crisis, but is now worse than that in this post-crisis period: some advanced countries, notably Canada, Japan, and the eurozone, have already seen big appreciations of their currencies. They are not alone.

China’s currency practices are hurting the United States far less than developing nations and the eurozone, amongst others, and the US government knows it. Two things are mind-boggling to me: why other countries don’t stand up to the Chinese more (I’m glad many have avoided the all-too-easy protectionist route, because that could be a disaster, but am not sure the current dialog on rebalancing is going to move the ball enough), but, more importantly, how the Chinese could possibly think that currency manipulation is a good long term strategy. Sure, it helps exports, and the CCCP has basically made a massive political bet on dramatic GDP growth based on exports, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

For a so-called socialist country, China is barely one at all. The domestic social safety is virtually non-existent, and as badly as the U.S. needs to expand healthcare coverage, China needs to much more. A social safety net would lessen the incredibly high savings rates that Chinese operate with (because they have no choice), in turn giving China’s people a greater ability to consume, a positive outcome for both the Chinese economy and the rest of the world.

In America these days, it’s popular to agonize over the amount of money we owe China. But China is saving because it has to, not because it wants to. As the saying goes, when you owe the bank $100,000, the bank owns you, but when you owe the bank $1.6 trillion, you own the bank. (For more on this, read Christopher Hayes’ recent article in The Nation.)

Obama Addresses the Economy

President Obama delivered remarks on the economy this morning. Below are a few points from what he is planning to do to spur job creation. The whole speech can be found here on the White House website.

Today, I want to outline some of the broader steps that I believe should be at the heart of our efforts to accelerate job growth – those areas that will generate the greatest number of jobs while generating the greatest value for our economy. 

First, we’re proposing a series of steps to help small businesses grow and hire new staff. Over the past fifteen years, small businesses have created roughly 65 percent of all new jobs in America. These are companies formed around kitchen tables in family meetings, formed when an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream, formed when a worker decides its time she became her own boss. These are also companies that drive innovation, producing thirteen times more patents per employee than large companies. And, it’s worth remembering, every once in a while a small business becomes a big business – and changes the world. 

That’s why it is so important that we help small business struggling to open, or stay open, during these difficult times. Building on the tax cuts in the Recovery Act, we’re proposing a complete elimination of capital gains taxes on small business investment along with an extension of write-offs to encourage small businesses to expand in the coming year. And I believe it’s worthwhile to create a tax incentive to encourage small businesses to add and keep employees and I’m going to work with Congress to pass one. 

These steps will help, but we also have to address the continuing struggle of small businesses to get the loans they need to start up and grow. To that end, we’re proposing to waive fees and increase the guarantees for SBA-backed loans. And I am asking my Treasury Secretary to continue mobilizing the remaining TARP funds to facilitate lending to small businesses.

Second, we’re proposing a boost in investment in the nation’s infrastructure beyond what was included in the Recovery Act, to continue modernizing our transportation and communications networks. These are needed public works that engage private sector companies, spurring hiring across the country. Already, more than 10,000 of these projects have been funded through the Recovery Act. And by design, Recovery Act work on roads, bridges, water systems, Superfund sites, broadband networks, and clean energy projects will all be ramping up in the months ahead. It was planned this way for two reasons: so the impact would be felt over a two year period; and, more importantly, because we wanted to do this right. The potential for abuse in a program of this magnitude, while operating at such a fast pace, was enormous. So I asked Vice President Biden and others to make sure – to the extent humanly possible – that the investments were sound, the projects worthy, and the execution efficient. What this means is that we’re going to see even more work – and workers – on Recovery projects in the next six months than we saw in the last six months.

Even so, there are many more worthy projects than there were dollars to fund them. I recognize that by their nature these projects often take time, and will therefore create jobs over time. But the need for jobs will also last beyond next year and the benefits of these investments will last years beyond that. So adding to this initiative to rebuild America’s infrastructure is the right thing to do.  

Third, I’m calling on Congress to consider a new program to provide incentives for consumers who retrofit their homes to become more energy efficient, which we know creates jobs, saves money for families, and reduces the pollution that threatens our environment. And I’m proposing that we expand select Recovery Act initiatives to promote energy efficiency and clean energy jobs which have proven particularly popular and effective. It’s a positive sign that many of these programs drew so many applicants for funding that a lot of strong proposals – proposals that will leverage private capital and create jobs quickly – did not make the cut. With additional resources, in areas like advanced manufacturing of wind turbines and solar panels, for instance, we can help turn good ideas into good private-sector jobs.

Finally, as we are moving forward in these areas, we should also extend the relief in the Recovery Act, including emergency assistance to seniors, unemployment insurance benefits, COBRA, and relief to states and localities to prevent layoffs. This will help folks weathering these storms while boosting consumer spending and promoting jobs.

Of course, there is only so much government can do. Job creation will ultimately depend on the real job creators: businesses across America. But government can help lay the groundwork on which the private sector can better generate jobs, growth, and innovation. After all, small business tax relief is not a substitute for the ingenuity and industriousness of our entrepreneurs; but it can help those with good ideas to grow and expand. Incentives to promote energy efficiency and clean energy manufacturing do not automatically create jobs or lower carbon emissions; but these steps provide a framework in which companies can compete and innovate to create those jobs and reduce energy consumption.  And while modernizing the physical and virtual networks that connect us will create private-sector jobs, they’ll do so while making it possible for companies to more easily and effectively move their products across this country and around the world. 

Given the challenge of accelerating the pace of hiring in the private sector, these targeted initiatives are right and they are needed. But with a fiscal crisis to match our economic crisis, we also must be prudent about how we fund it. So to help support these efforts, we’re going to wind down the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP – the fund created to stabilize the financial system so banks would lend again. 

There has rarely been a less loved or more necessary emergency program than TARP, which – as galling as the assistance to banks may have been – indisputably helped prevent a collapse of the entire financial system.  Launched hastily under the last administration, the TARP program was flawed, and we have worked hard to correct those flaws and manage it properly. And today, TARP has served its original purpose and at a much lower cost than we expected. 

In fact, because of our stewardship of this program, and the transparency and accountability we put in place, TARP is expected to cost the taxpayer at least $200 billion less than what was anticipated just this summer. And the assistance to banks, once thought to cost the taxpayers untold billions, is on track to actually reap billions in profit for the taxpaying public. This gives us a chance to pay down the deficit faster than we thought possible and to shift funds that would have gone to help the banks on Wall Street to help create jobs on Main Street.

Small business, infrastructure, clean energy: these are areas in which we can put Americans to work while putting our nation on a sturdier economic footing. That foundation for sustained economic growth must be our continuing focus and our ultimate goal. For even before this period crisis, much of our growth had been fueled by unsustainable consumer debt and reckless financial speculation, while we ignored the fundamental challenges that hold the key to our economic prosperity. We cannot simply go back to the way things used to be. We cannot go back to an economy that yielded cycle after cycle of speculative booms and painful busts. We cannot continue to accept an education system in which our students trail their peers in other countries, and a health care system in which exploding costs put our businesses at a competitive disadvantage. And we cannot continue to ignore the clean energy challenge or cede global leadership in the emerging industries of the 21st century. That’s why, as we strive to meet the crisis of the moment, we are laying a new foundation for the future.

Because an educated workforce is essential in a 21st century global economy, we’ve launched a competitive Race to the Top fund through the Recovery Act to reform our schools and raise achievement, especially in math and science. And we’ve made college more affordable, proposed an historic set of reforms and investments in community college, and set a goal of once again leading the world in producing college graduates by 2020. 

Because even the best trained workers in the world can’t compete if our businesses are saddled with rapidly increasing health care costs, we’re fighting to do what we have discussed in this country for generations: finally reforming our nation’s broken health insurance system and relieving this unsustainable burden. 

Because our economic future depends on a financial system that encourages sound investments, honest dealings, and long-term growth, we’ve proposed the most ambitious financial reforms since the Great Depression. We’ll set and enforce clear rules of the road, close loopholes in oversight, charge a new agency with protecting consumers, and address the dangerous, systemic risks that brought us to the brink of disaster. These reforms are moving through Congress, we’re working to keep those reforms strong, and I look forward to signing them into law. 

And because our economic future depends on our leadership in the industries of the future, we are investing in basic and applied research, and working to create the incentives to build a new clean energy economy. For we know the nation that leads in clean energy will be the nation that leads the world. I want America to be that nation. I want America’s prosperity to be powered by what we invent and pioneer – not just what we borrow and consume. And I know that we can and will be that nation, if we are willing to do what it takes to get there. 

There are those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficits on the one hand, and investing in job creation and economic growth on the other. But this is a false choice. Ensuring that economic growth and job creation are strong and sustained is critical to ensuring that we are increasing revenues and decreasing spending on things like unemployment so that our deficits will start coming down. At the same time, instilling confidence in our commitment to being fiscally prudent gives the private sector the confidence to make long-term investments in our people and on our shores.

Where is Employment Headed?

Friday’s unemployment report of fewer jobs lost than expected surely beats the alternative, but that does not mean that the employment situation will improve significantly anytime soon. What it hopefully means is that things won’t get dramatically worse, although that certainly can’t be ruled out.

Calculated Risk, perhaps the most prolific chart maker and data analyst of all economics blogs, presents an analysis on the potential speed of the employment recovery. These estimates are based on Okun’s Law (an established relationship between GDP growth and job creation):

unemployment and GDP

In the 2010 budget, OMB projects real GDP growth of 3.5 percent from the fourth quarter of this year to next, meaning that, if Okun’s law were still operable, we’d be somewhere in the mid to high 9 percent unemployment range at the end of next year. (The Federal Reserve sees similar numbers.)

Having said that, many leading economists, including NDN’s Rob Shapiro and the Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers, have argued that Okun’s law has broken down, making the relationship between GDP growth and employment weaker, which means these projections may be - sadly - optimistic. 

Understanding the Lost Decade for Jobs and Incomes

UPDATE: For more on NDN's Lost Decade narrative, read the new NDN White Paper entitled, "A Lost Decade for Everyday Americans."

With the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth getting underway, now is a good time to note that the problem isn’t just jobs. As we’ve long argued and the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, the last decade has been a lost one for everyday Americans. First, we generally note that, even as GDP and productivity surged, household income didn’t keep up. In fact, the average household income took more than a $2000 loss during the Bush presidency. 

A second point, illustrated by the Wall Street Journal, is that private sector employment has basically not grown in a decade.

It is difficult to understand how bad this recession has been without fully understanding the pre-recession weakness of the American consumer caused by dropping incomes and higher costs. NDN’s Dr. Rob Shapiro – who is at the White House Forum right now – has agued that structural dynamics in the American economy have broken down its job creation and wage growth capability. For NDN’s latest thinking on these important issues, please consult:

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