A 21st Century Economic Strategy for America

The New Reality of Heightened Structural Unemployment

Mark Thoma, who has a new blog, ponders a "new normal" (read: higher) unemployment rate. He points to something both NDN and Thoma have been writing about: concerns of higher structural unemployment.

I expect structural unemployment to be higher than it was, particularly in the next few years. We had too many resources in housing, finance, and automobile production, and it will take time for the economy to make the necessary structural adjustments. When this is combined with continuing globalization, as well as the higher savings rate and correspondingly lower consumption expected from households in the future, both of which cause structural change within the economy, the expectation is that the new target rate of unemployment will rise above the 4 percent level it was at before the recession.

Exactly how much it will rise and for how long is hard to say. A 5 or 6 percent rate, or even somewhat higher is certainly imaginable, but getting it right is important. If policymakers target an unemployment rate that is too low, they risk causing inflation (one reason for the high rate of inflation in the 1970s is that the Fed targeted a 4 percent unemployment rate when the actual rate of normal unemployment was much higher due to structural and demographic change). If they target a rate that is too high, then they risk having people be unnecessarily unemployed in the economy.

He goes on to point to a few ideas of how to deal with this - worker training and extended unemployment benefits among them. With unemployment at 10 percent, there are massive challenges involved in bringing that level back to "normal," but, as we craft economic policy going forward, it is important to understand that we're not going back to what we had, and policy must be responsive to the new economic realities. 

NDN believes this structural change, as well as the structural changes that have de-linked GDP and wage growth, represent the great governing challenges of the day. For years we've pointed to a three part agenda to deal with these issues. This agenda includes containing health care and energy costs, accelerating innovation, and investing in infrastructure and skills, all steps that will have to be taken to create broad based prosperity in the 21st century economy. 

Health Care’s Raw Deal for Middle-Class Families

Health care reform advocates often point out that the costs of reform should be weighed against the costs of doing nothing.  Unfortunately, that’s very hard to do, since our health care and tax arrangements mask those costs so well.  I suspect that if middle-class Americans had a better grasp of what health care really costs them, and how those costs are shaping their economic futures, the public response might well recall the tax revolt of the 1970s.

These are my thoughts, at least, reading a new piece from Eugene Steuerle, a tax economist at the Urban Institute with a knack for collecting data that can help us see the world in fresh ways.  From the data Steuerle presents, we can calculate that within just five or six years, the average middle-class family will have to devote nearly one-third of its income to health care costs.  That’s right: one-third.  According to the CBO, the average family will earn $54,000 a year in 2016, when a moderate-priced family policy will cost $14,700.  Employers will pay much of that insurance bill for most middle-class families; but that’s just a mask, since those employer payments come out of people’s wages, not a company’s profits.   In real effect, a middle class family’s earnings in 2016 will come to $68,700 ($54,000 + $14,700), of which $14,700 or 21.4 percent will go for health insurance.  And that won’t be their only health-related costs.  Their co-payments and other uninsured expenses, on average, will come to another $5,100.  They’ll also be paying taxes to help cover other people’s health care – 2.9 percent of their cash wages for Medicare ($1,566), plus perhaps $750 more in federal and state income taxes for Medicaid and for Medicare costs not covered by the 2.9 percent payroll tax.  Add up all of that, and it comes to $22,116, or 32.2 percent of the middle-class family’s adjusted income of $68,700.

While Steuerle is concerned – rightly so – about provisions in health care reform that will treat people with the same incomes differently, depending on the rules the legislation applies to employers, I’m more incensed about the current, raw deal for middle-class Americans.  Why should an average family expect to pay one-third of its income in 2016 on a health care system which, in that same year, should claim only 16 percent of our GDP?   The biggest part of this puzzle lies in the fact that most of the costs are roughly the same for most people, regardless of their income.  The worker earning $68,700, a manager who makes $100,000, and the company’s CEO who earns $1 million all will pay the same $14,700 for their families’ health coverage. Their out-of-pocket expenses do rise with income but not by very much; and while the manager and CEO pay more Medicare taxes than our average worker, they all pay at the same 2.9 percent rate.  There also are other factors which reduce the burden on other groups – and so tacitly increase it for those middle-class families.  For example, people on Medicare and Medicaid bear much lower insurance costs, although they also pay relatively more for their out-of-pocket expenses; and families without children pay relatively less for both insurance and out-of-pocket expenses.

Whatever the causes, the data show clearly that health care costs have become a core economic issue for middle-class Americans.  Unless we can contain them, and over time even reduce them, realistic prospects of upward mobility for most middle-class families will simply slip away.   Health care, in short, has to be an essential part of a new economic strategy.

The last political upheaval over the economic prospects of the middle class began with Proposition 13 in California and went on to fuel a conservative realignment that held sway for a quarter century.   The next one may well have begun already with these unsustainable health care costs.  President Obama, whose talent for reading the American mood equals Ronald Reagan’s, has tried to respond quickly with several reasonable ideas for cost containment.  His proposals went nowhere when healthcare providers and insurers countered by, in effect, threatening to withhold people’s care.  The next time, this issue will be recast in terms that everyone understands – people’s real incomes – and the results could be very different.

Two Public Nudges Forward for U.S. Trade Policy

Today saw two nudges forward for U.S. trade policy, which has been at a standstill for quite a while now. First, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus delivered a major speech calling for a new U.S. trade policy. From Senator Baucus' speech:

“It’s time for a new blueprint on trade,” said Baucus. “And this blueprint must focus first and foremost on Asia. We must open key Asian markets, and key markets around the world, to U.S. exports. In these difficult economic times, American jobs, American workers and America’s economic growth depend on it more than ever before. ”

Moving Forward with a New Blueprint on Trade

John F. Kennedy said:

“We must trade or fade.” 

When President Kennedy said those words almost 50 years ago, the United States was pulling out of a recession. Even as the engines of growth sputtered back to life, unemployment remained high. In response, the President proposed a bold plan to revive the U.S. economy and put Americans back to work. 

In 1962, President Kennedy proposed domestic stimulus measures, such as tax cuts and more robust unemployment insurance. And President Kennedy also looked outward. He did not react to the difficult economic times by pulling back from a strong trade agenda. Instead, he pushed forward. He believed that export driven growth would utilize idle capacity, help maintain our balance of payments, and build bridges to key allies around the world.

Once again, the economy demands leadership. And the fundamental truth that President Kennedy espoused then holds just as true today. We must trade or fade.

In addition, Ed Luce writes in the FT about the words of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore who recently met with President Obama:

“You guys are giving China a free run in Asia,” [Lee] told Fred Bergsten, the director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The vacuum in US policy is enabling the Chinese to make the running.”

“It is really important to understand just how badly the US is screwing itself on trade,” said Mr Bergsten. “By having an inactive trade policy, others are rushing to fill the vacuum.”

Mr Obama will have to deal with Beijing’s sensitivities following his recent decision to impose import duties on Chinese tyre imports, in addition to more familiar disputes over China’s lack of protection for intellectual property rights and its allegedly under-valued exchange rate.

But Washington’s lack of leadership will be most keenly felt at Apec at the weekend. “You’ve got Asian countries engaged in negotiations throughout the region and the world – over 16 [trade] negotiations completed,” said Steve Schrage at the Centre For Strategic and International Studies.

“In contrast, you’ve got a United States where there are questions about a jobless recovery, and our free-trade agreement efforts are stalled.”

White House officials have hinted that Mr Obama may be open to such a move which, they say, could help rekindle US economic leadership in Asia.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom we are not inactive,” said a senior official.

One possible silver lining could emerge if Mr Obama puts his weight behind the Transpacific Partnership – a group of small Apec members that hopes to set up open trade in the region.

The theme of the Baucus speech and Lee's warnings are the same: doing nothing means moving backward. A legacy of the Bush years, during which he talked big about trade but produced few results, the standstill on economic liberalization, especially in Asia, will hopefully be reversed quickly, aided by the popularity of President Obama that Luce cites. That said, China is quickly moving to usurp American economic leadership in Asia, and it's clear that America cannot stand by idly. Completing Doha and liberalizing trade in Asia will have to be cornerstones of a 21st century American economic strategy that allows our workers and businesses to compete globally.

NDN Backgrounder: Putting the Focus on the Economy and the Struggle of Everyday People

This week's elections and news that unemployment has reached 10.2 percent have renewed the national focus on the importance of the economy. NDN has long argued that the economy is the central issue driving the volatility of the American electorate and continues to write and advocate on the need to create a 21st century economic plan for America. Below, please find some recent and longstanding NDN narrative and analysis on the impact of the changing economy to American politics and policy:

  • Sifting Through the Economic Messages From the Elections Last Night by Simon Rosenberg, 11/4/2009 - Exit polls show that the most important factor to voters is the economy, as the old, 20th century economy is not working for everyday Americans anymore. To have electoral and governing success, policymakers must make a the creation of a new, 21st century economy their central focus. 
  • What Washington Should Understand and Do to Create Jobs by Dr. Robert J. Shapiro, 10/8/2009 - Even the term "jobless recovery" understates how dire America's economic situation is, as the economy now faces structural problems to create jobs and wage growth. With no silver bullet in sight, policymakers must set their sites on creating an agenda and conversation around long-term, broad based prosperity. 
  • The Key to the Fall Debate: Staying Focused on the Economy by Simon Rosenberg, 9/3/2009 - The summer months were not good ones for Democrats, but Rosenberg argues that there is a roadmap for how they can get back on track: staying relentlessly focused on the economy and the struggle of every day people.  
  • Noticing and Solving the Problem with Jobs and Wages by Dr. Robert Shapiro, 7/23/2009 - The ability of the American economy to create jobs and wage growth, even in times of productivity and GDP growth, has broken down. Policymakers must adjust to this new economic reality.
  • Not Taking the Presidential Eye Off the Economic Ball by Simon Rosenberg, 7/2/2009 - The economy is the singular dominant issue in American politics today, and the administration must craft a response to that, understanding that few want a recovery that takes America back to the Bush economy.
  • Should We Try to Save the Damaged Brands? by Simon Rosenberg, 4/30/2009 - Rosenberg asks if these mainstay, now troubled American brands - AIG, Chrysler, Citi, GM - can be saved by being propped up by the government or if their brands are permanently insolvent.
  • A Stimulus for the Long Run by Simon Rosenberg and Dr. Robert Shapiro, 11/14/2008 – This important essay lays out the now widely agreed-upon argument that the upcoming economic stimulus package must include investments in the basic elements of growth for the next decade, including elements that create a low-carbon, energy-efficient economy.
  • Back to Basics: The Treasury Plan Won't Work by Dr. Robert Shapiro, 9/24/2008 - As the financial crisis unfolded and the Bush Administration offered its response, Shapiro argued that, while major action was needed, the Treasury's plan would be ineffective.
  • Keep People in Their Homes by Simon Rosenberg and Dr. Robert Shapiro, 9/23/2008 – At the beginning of the financial collapse, NDN offered this narrative-shaping essay on the economic need to stabilize the housing market.
  • Poll: Economic Strategies and Globalization conducted by Pete Brodnitz, Benenson Strategy Group, 11/8/2007 - This poll of attitudes toward the economy and globalization found that Americans understand the modern nature of globalization, want government to give them the opportunity to succeed through investment, and believe innovation is a key strength of the American economy. Americans also saw the economy getting much worse, and they were right, as the recession officially began just a month later.
  • Voters Deliver a Mandate for a New Economic Strategy by Simon Rosenberg, 11/10/2006 - In analysis of exit polls from the 2006 elections, which chased Republicans from power, NDN argued that the most important factor, even in an election most thought was decided on the war in Iraq, was the economy. 
  • Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century: Crafting a Better CAFTA by Simon Rosenberg, Dr. Robert Shapiro, and Joe Garcia, 6/9/2005 - NDN calls on policymakers to face squarely a vision of how globalization can and should work, and how rapid economic liberalization, generally a positive for America and the world, must be accompanied by a commensurate investment in the economic well-being of everyday Americans, who have not seen the expected wage gains despite strong productivity and GDP growth. 

Pearlstein: No Quick Fix for the Economy

In his Washington Post column today (now thankfully in the 1st section of the paper) Steven Pearlstein warns the nation's policymakers that there is no quick and easy fix for the struggling American economy:

As difficult as it is for voters and politicians to accept, government cannot -- and does not -- control our market economy. To give you a rough idea, it would be a huge accomplishment, and take a huge amount of money, for the government to stimulate the creation of a million jobs, let alone 2 million. Even that, however, would be but a fraction of the nearly 7.5 million jobs that have been lost so far in this recession.

The truth is that robust growth and job creation will happen only once we've completed the painful and disruptive process of deleveraging, restructuring and rebalancing the economy so that we consume less than we produce, and put something away for the future. The government can, and has, taken steps to smooth that process and make sure that it does not spin out of control, while providing some support for those who have lost the most. But unless we reinflate the credit bubble and the bubble economy that it spawned -- a big mistake -- there is no way to avoid an extended period of uncomfortably slow growth with uncomfortably high employment as a large, complex, dynamic market economy heals itself.

Conservative Economics Not Making a Comeback

Simon and Rob have weighed in quite a bit this morning on what the elections mean for the country and the Obama agenda. As they both stress, the biggest thing this election means is that focusing on an economic plan for the country must be the top priority. What's important to note is that this is nothing new. NDN has been arguing since 2006 that the volatility in the electorate was due to economic conditions. Exit polls from that year bear the argument out, even though most pundits at the time thought Iraq was the key issue. Here's NDN's analysis of 2006 exit polls:

-  The economy was the most important issue.  The exit poll asked voters if they considered various issue important in deciding their vote.  If you add up those  who responded - where issues were extremely, very, or somewhat important - the economy comes out number one.

Table 1: Which issue was most important?


Extremely Important

Very Important

Somewhat Important






















Moral Values 





-  Economy Crucial in Battleground States.  The economy played a critical role in the key battleground states that decided the election.  In these areas the results could not be clearer: the economy was the number one issue.  The exit poll asked voters in key swing states about Iraq and the Economy.  In each swing state more voters thought the economy was either "extremely important" or "very important" in their decision over who to vote for their senator.

Table 2: Economy vs Iraq in Key Senate Races



















All this in much better economic times, so it comes as no surprise that exit polls from yesterday show that the economy was the dominant issue. Barack Obama continues poll much better on economic issues than do Republicans (according to a recent Pew poll, 57 percent of Americans are optimistic Obama's policies will improve the economy) and, as Simon pointed out, Republican solutions such as tax caps were voted down in two states last night. So there's little to make me believe that conservative economics is making a comeback and little to make me believe that the cheap populism of Glenn Beck (and his mentee Hoffman in NY-23) works either.

What is clear to me is that the most catastrophic thing for nervous Democrats could do before 2010 is believe that either are paths to success. The fact is that Democrats have a phenomenal historic record on the economy, and Republicans delivered eight years of wage stagnation, median income decline, and exploding health care and energy costs. Focusing on policies that address this issues, which are at the heart of the struggle of everyday Americans, is the key to victory when the polls really matter. 

Crafting Economic Policy and Rhetoric Responsive to the Struggle of Everyday Americans

This week, EPI released some polling getting at the very core of the political problem around the economy - Americans feel as though the government has been responsive to the needs of banks and Wall Street, not them. Tom Edsall covers the poll in the Huffington Post and includes this slide from the poll results:

EPI poll

The article goes on to argue that the American people have gotten it about right - quoting James Galbraith who says:

"In relative terms, the perceptions are dead-on: the big winners so far are the bailed-out bankers. Meanwhile on the jobs and housing front, things get worse," says University of Texas economist James Galbraith. "You can make an argument that everyone has been helped by the fact that the economy hasn't collapsed even more completely," Galbraith added, but that does not "cut any ice with the population at the moment. What they see is that a top-down bailout works on the top and doesn't go very far down. And they are right."

This sense, true or not, is a massive political challenge that must be addressed over the next year. We've written a lot about the need to adjust rhetoric to be responsive to the struggles of everyday people. This, by the way, doesn't mean some sort of populism, it means having a big conversation about a 21st century economic strategy for America that focuses on broad-based prosperity.

The American people have a better understanding for the global economy than most in Washington give them credit for - as evidence, take a look at this NDN poll released in November of 2007, just before the recession began. Not only did Americans know that the economy was in very bad shape, they understood the shape of the global economy and America's advantages therein.

Statement on New Economic Data Released by the Commerce Department

Today, NDN issued the following press release:

Statement from Dr. Robert J. Shapiro, Chair of NDN’s Globalization Initiative, on new economic data released by the Commerce Department:

“While this week’s news on the economy growing in the third quarter is welcome, most of those gains came from the President’s stimulus, so we’re still a long way from a self-sustaining recovery.  And today’s news of falling personal incomes last month and a sharp downturn in consumer spending shows how hard this recession has been for most Americans,” said Shapiro, former Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs in the Clinton Administration. “These developments come on top of what happened to most people in the last expansion – when their wages stagnated even as the economy was growing.  Political leaders in Washington shouldn’t let wishful thinking cloud their planning for 2010 – the economy still needs help, and the American people need a government prepared to make serious long-term investments in their future prosperity.”

Krugman: American Policymakers Must Deal With China's Currency Manipulation

Paul Krugman weighs in on China’s continued policy of devaluing its currency to promote exports:

Senior monetary officials usually talk in code. So when Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, spoke recently about Asia, international imbalances and the financial crisis, he didn’t specifically criticize China’s outrageous currency policy.

But he didn’t have to: everyone got the subtext. China’s bad behavior is posing a growing threat to the rest of the world economy. The only question now is what the world — and, in particular, the United States — will do about it.

China has been keeping its currency pegged to the dollar — which means that a country with a huge trade surplus and a rapidly recovering economy, a country whose currency should be rising in value, is in effect engineering a large devaluation instead.

And that’s a particularly bad thing to do at a time when the world economy remains deeply depressed due to inadequate overall demand. By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of that inadequate demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere. The biggest victims, by the way, are probably workers in other poor countries. In normal times, I’d be among the first to reject claims that China is stealing other peoples’ jobs, but right now it’s the simple truth.

So what are we going to do?

U.S. officials have been extremely cautious about confronting the China problem, to such an extent that last week the Treasury Department, while expressing “concerns,” certified in a required report to Congress that China is not — repeat not — manipulating its currency. They’re kidding, right?

The thing is, right now this caution makes little sense. Suppose the Chinese were to do what Wall Street and Washington seem to fear and start selling some of their dollar hoard. Under current conditions, this would actually help the U.S. economy by making our exports more competitive.

In fact, some countries, most notably Switzerland, have been trying to support their economies by selling their own currencies on the foreign exchange market. The United States, mainly for diplomatic reasons, can’t do this; but if the Chinese decide to do it on our behalf, we should send them a thank-you note.

The point is that with the world economy still in a precarious state, beggar-thy-neighbor policies by major players can’t be tolerated. Something must be done about China’s currency.

Krugman makes an important point about beggaring thy neighbor policies on the part of major powers being unacceptable. In addition, they generally backfire. In this case, as domestic American frustration over China’s role in the global economy grows, the prospect grows of the American government taking major actions that affect China’s ability to prosper. (Which will in turn likely result in Chinese retaliation.) 

We’ve already seen a small step in this direction with the tire tariff spat, but if Americans begin to feel that China is a bad actor in the global economy – even though, as Krugman writes, most of the jobs impact is still being felt in other poor countries – both the United States and China will have tremendous problems on their hands. For China, modernity and prosperity rests on fully joining the global economic system, which means starting to better play by the rules; American policymakers face the challenge of convincing China of that.

Friedman on a 21st Century Agenda for Worker Skills

Today, Thomas Friedman writes about the "education breakdown" in America:

“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor. “This loss of competitiveness has weakened the American worker’s production of wealth, precisely when technology brought global competition much closer to home. So over a decade, American workers have maintained their standard of living by borrowing and overconsuming vis-à-vis their real income. When the Great Recession wiped out all the credit and asset bubbles that made that overconsumption possible, it left too many American workers not only deeper in debt than ever, but out of a job and lacking the skills to compete globally.”

This problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.

That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today. Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

As the Harvard University labor expert Lawrence Katz explains it: “If you think about the labor market today, the top half of the college market, those with the high-end analytical and problem-solving skills who can compete on the world market or game the financial system or deal with new government regulations, have done great. But the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They’ve been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable.”

There is no doubt that our education system is badly in need of an upgrade, but we also must be cognizant of fact that much of the current workforce just does not posses the skills to succeed in the globally interconnected, idea-based economy. This isn’t just a phenomenon of this recession; everyday Americans spent much of the Bush era falling behind due to the inability of their government to respond to their struggle and find a way to make the inextricably powerful forces of globalization work for all Americans. 

In that spirit, NDN’s Rob Shapiro has proposed a program to provide free computer training to all Americans, which can be found here and recently passed the House of Representatives in H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act.

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