On Tuesday, February 22, NDN and the New Policy Institute hosted Jason Furman, Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and the Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, for an important discussion of the Obama Administration’s economic strategy. The conversation focused on President Obama’s budget and efforts to "Win the Future" in the competitive, global economy of the 21st century.
Jason Furman, Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council
Jason Furman is an Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and the Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. Furman took leave from the Brookings Institution to become the Economic Policy Director of Obama for America, where he helped develop and communicate the campaign’s policies. He was a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies and Director of the Hamilton Project at Brookings. He began his career in public service during the Clinton administration, as a Staff Economist at the Council of Economic Advisers and subsequently a Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy at the National Economic Council. In addition, he was a Senior Adviser to the Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank. Furman has also worked on research and in academia as a Visiting Scholar at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, as a visiting lecturer at Yale and Columbia Universities, as a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and at the Brookings Institution. He has conducted research in a wide range of areas, including fiscal policy, tax policy, health economics, Social Security, and monetary policy. Published in a variety of scholarly journals and popular publications, he recently edited two economic policy books. Furman earned his Ph.D. in economics and a M.A. in government from Harvard University and an M.Sc. in economics from the London School of Economics. He is married with two young children.
Thanks to globalization, the uprising in Egypt raises serious questions about the impact on Western economies, including America, as well as Egypt’s political and economic development. The precipitating event for the current unrest almost certainly was a facet of globalization -- steadily rising worldwide food prices which hit record levels just before the unrest broke out. An average household in Cairo has to spend 40 percent of its income on food, so price increases of more than 30 percent in recent months almost certainly helped fuel the volatile dissatisfaction. Outside Egypt, the economic issue is, as usual, the price of oil. Egypt produces little of the black stuff; but unlike Tunisia, it is an important transit country for crude. Despite media doomsayers, however, the current unrest is very unlikely to take a serious toll on Western economies.
A full-out civil war certainly could compromise the Suez Canal and the Sumed pipeline that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. If that happens, tankers carrying more than 2 million barrels of oil a day will have to add another 6,000 miles to their journeys. Such an interruption of shipments through the Canal and the Egyptian pipeline would shake up world oil markets and set the stage for speculators like Goldman Sachs and large hedge funds to gin up a short-term spike in prices, and profit nicely by it. And yes, oil price increases can have huge effects on the American and world economies. The recessions of 1974-1975, 1980, and 1990-1991 were triggered by big jumps in oil prices; and what became the Great Recession of 2007-2009 also was set off by oil price hikes.
But in order to threaten the U.S. and global recoveries, an oil price spike would have to be both very large and persistent -- for at least four-to-six months. Before this year’s unrest gripped Tunisia and Egypt, oil prices in 2010 had risen by about 27 percent. That cost the United States an additional $72 billion for oil imports, an extra $70 billion for the EU’s oil imports, and $27 billion more for Japan. That’s not peanuts, but it was still just ripples for economies of their size. Saudi Arabia is the only country with the capacity to engineer and maintain a price spike sufficient to wreck real economic havoc – as it has the capacity to prevent any other oil-producing country from trying to do the same.
The real economic impact here threatens Egypt, not the United States; and once again, globalization is the key. As China, Eastern Europe and parts of Latin America attest, globalization creates a new path for rapid economic development, based on vast foreign direct investments (FDI). Over the last decade, the world’s leading multinational companies have transferred hundreds of billions of dollars in advanced technologies and business organizations directly to developing countries, including Egypt. But FDI goes to countries whose economic and political stability those companies trust. The political and economic conditions that emerge in Egypt once the uprising is resolved will determine whether FDI to Egypt continues, sustaining its path to modernization, or reverses itself and puts the country on a path to economic stagnation.
These FDI transfers to Egypt swamp, for example, all U.S aid. Over the last decade, American economic assistance to the country has averaged about $500 million per-year, and total economic and military assistance has run about $1.8 billion per-year. Over the same period, FDI into Egypt has averaged $4.8 billion per-year, nearly three times all U.S. assistance and almost 10 times our economic aid. Moreover, these FDI transfers increased sharply in recent years, averaging $9.4 billion per year since 2006 or 6.2 percent of Egypt’s GDP.
There’s no doubt that the chief investment officers at the world’s largest companies have put on hold new investments in Northern Africa, at least until the outcome of the uprising becomes more clear. Many factors go into the decisions about where to set up new foreign operations by companies like Coca Cola, General Electric, and Mitsubishi – or in Egypt’s case, by energy companies such as APA and BP, and financial service giants such as Citigroup and Metropolitan life. The size and composition of a national or regional market count, as do a developing country’s infrastructure, the skills of the local labor force, the taxes multinationals will have to pay, and the soundness of a country’s currency.
Underlying all of these conditions is a country’s basic political stability and willingness to embrace Western businesses. Sadly, multinational have no special preference for democracies over dictatorships, so long as both can guarantee stability and the rule of law. To be sure, democracies tend to be a little more stable and lawful than many dictatorships, and sometimes they’re more prone to undertake the large public investments that Western companies look for. But if the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies end up on top in Egypt, the modernizing investments now planned for there and many already in place will almost certainly go to other countries – dashing many of the hopes for a better life that have fueled the uprising.
Buyers in markets around the U.S. are snapping up homes in all-cash deals, betting that prices are at or near bottom and breathing life into some of the nation's most battered housing markets.
Cash buyers represented more than half of all transactions in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area last year, according to an analysis from real-estate portal Zillow.com. In the fourth quarter of 2006, they represented just 13% of deals. Meanwhile, downtown Miami prices rose 15% in 2010 from a year earlier, according to the Miami Downtown Development Authority.
The percentage of buyers in Phoenix paying cash hit 42% in 2010—more than triple the rate in 2008, according to Raymond James's equity research division.
Nationally, 28% of sales were all-cash transactions last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. The rate was 14% in October 2008, when the trade group began tracking the measure.
The jump in real-estate purchases made with cash is another sign of the revival of animal spirits in the U.S. economy.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 69.48 points Monday, or 0.6%, to 12161.63, and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index rose 8.18 points, or 0.6%, to 1319.05.
Monday's announcements of $13 billion in acquisitions lifted stocks on hopes of more deals, share buybacks and dividends as companies regain momentum in an improving economy.
The two stock indexes have soared more than 80% since early March 2009.
The Federal Reserve reported that Americans increased their use of credit cards in December for the first time since August 2008, showing that consumers are getting less skittish about opening their wallets. Investors also were soothed Monday by encouraging signs in Egypt, including last weekend's reopening of banks.
Residential real estate has been slower to bounce back than stocks, but the presence of apparent bargains is luring in newly confident buyers.
A housing recovery is crucial because homes are the single largest asset for many Americans. When housing values collapsed following a decade of declining median income, everyday Americans saw their wealth evaporate. This news on housing is - hopefully - a sign of improvement in the balance sheets of American households.
The plan out of the House GOP to cut around $40 billion from domestic agencies in the next few months ($32 billion net, but an $8 billion addition for the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs) would be laughable, except cuts like this are no laughing matter. There's a simple reality at foot here: these cuts have nothing to do with putting America on sound fiscal footing, nothing at all. Furthermore, they have nothing to do with job creation.
The nation's fiscal picture is clear - growing Medicare costs are the largest contributor to our long-term fiscal problems. Yet the plan out of the House does not address these costs. (The House did that the other day, by attempting to exacerbate healthcare costs by repealing the Affordable Care Act.)
Additionally, the economic problems facing the country mainly stem from a shortage of demand in the economy. Pulling roughly $40 billion out of the domestic economy removes demand from the economy. It's not yet clear where exactly the $40 billion would come from, but it is likely that some of it comes from programs that either have strong multiplier effects on the overall economy or are the engines of future economic growth. These cuts, especially, must be fought.
By commonly held metrics, these cuts do not contribute to growth or put the nation on a meaningfully better fiscal path. Because of these two facts, it is incumbent on their proponents to explain why they matter. Changing a "culture of spending," as Rep. Paul Ryan purports to do, is not real economic policy. Conservatives clearly hold a faith that less government is better. They should be asked to make that case when they propose such cuts, instead of getting to hide behind a vale of fiscal responsibility or economic literacy.
The revolt in Egypt is being driven by disaffected middle-class youth angry about the lack of economic opportunity. Likewise, in Tunisia, unemployment and high food prices were at the core of the people's complaint with their government. Such is generally the case - economic stagnation leads to political unrest.
In America, too, the economy drives political volatility. Upset about 10% unemployment, the American electorate threw out the Democratic House of Representatives in 2010; in 2006 and 2008, declining household incomes and an economic collapse led Americans to push Republicans from power. While American political angst is delivered differently - at the ballot box and not in the streets - the economy, again, creates political change.
This analysis may seem simple, but it's factual - political scientists have found a strong correlation between income and both Presidential approval rating and congressional seats won in mid-term elections. Political volatility is an inevitable result of a bad economy, and the volatility is generally accompanied by anger. People feel a bad economy and get angry about whatever they didn't like to begin with-they just do it louder.
This isn't to say that there aren't other issues that matter to citizens; there are. Egyptians were furious that Mubarak planned for his son to succeed him. Healthcare, civil rights, immigration, and fiscal issues, to name a few, are important to Americans. But the economy is like no other political issue because it's not just about sharing values or agreeing with a candidate's principles. "The economy" actually means the real quality of life enjoyed by a country's people. When people's economic well-being declines, when opportunity no longer presents itself, the body politic gets angry, and that anger is manifested politically. In dictatorships, governments get overthrown; in democracies, they get voted out. If the Egyptian economy were thriving, Mubarak would likely still be in control of Egypt. And if the American economy were thriving, we'd have seen far less volatility in the last three elections, less angst about deficits and debt, and likely no Tea Party. (We'd be in the 1990's, when items such as school uniforms topped the agenda.)
So what do regular people want? Simple: they want leaders who are responsive to their overriding concern - the economy. Oddly, this most basic political fact isn't always acted upon. Hosni Mubarak should have done more than replace his cabinet with new faces when people's complaints are about a lack of opportunity. Conversely, it's no surprise that the President's State of the Union address won high approval ratings - he talked about people's economic problems and his plan to create a better economy.
Ultimately, the politics and the policy have to meet - political leaders must have a plan for the economy and that plan must actually work. That's why, if incomes, housing values, and job prospects for everyday Americans improve before the 2012 elections, President Obama will in all likelihood be reelected. And, if other autocracies with miserable economies fail to improve in coming years, Egypt and Tunisia will mark just the beginning of a string of similar incidents of political unrest.
Update - 2/1/2011: Jordan's King Abdullah II has fired his cabinet due to protests. The New York Timesreports that economic issues are driving popular discontent:
Recent demonstrations in Jordan marked the first serious challenge to the decade-old rule of King Abdullah, a critical American ally in the region who is contending with his country’s worst economic crisis in years....Banners decried high food and fuel prices and demanded the resignation of the prime minister, appointed by the king.
Last Tuesday night, the President exhorted Americans to raise our economic game and challenged Congress to give us the means to do so. His basic proposition, which comes from mainstream economics and more recently from Bill Clinton’s 1992 economic plan, is that expanding certain national investments can make us more competitive, especially if it’s tied to overall deficit restraint. Moreover, Obama’s pitch for greater federal commitments to R&D, education and training and infrastructure carries greater urgency this time out, as recent sea changes in the U.S. and global economies have raised the stakes for most Americans in the new initiative’s success..
If expanding these public investments is a radical idea, as some of the President’s opponents claim, so is the last 200 years of economic thought. Since Adam Smith, it has been an economic commonplace that private markets and businesses will always tend to invest too little for any nation’s good in basic research and development, education and training, and infrastructure. That’s why it has been the business of governments for nearly two centuries to mandate and pay for public education, build roads and bridges, and in many cases support basic scientific research.
When Clinton called for the same roster of national investments, he argued from basic economics that they would make American workers more productive and American businesses more efficient. That still holds true. But the waves of globalization of the last 15 years provide a new framework for the operations of American businesses, based on international competitiveness. The massive transfers of technologies and entire business organizations to developing countries by the world’s leading multinationals, especially in manufacturing, have shifted the basis of competition. U.S., European and Japanese manufacturing operations can’t compete with the third-world dynamos on price. Instead, our firms and workers have to compete on quality and innovation, which can depend fairly directly on the public investment priorities touted by the President last week, especially in R&D and education and training.
The toys, cell phones, basic laptops and so on made or assembled today in China and places like it will always be cheaper than what any firm and its workers in America can produce. That’s an inescapable advantage for Chinese companies that pay their manufacturing workers less than $50 per-week and their engineers less than $75 per-week. That’s also why American companies and workers largely don’t produce what China exports anymore -- and why would they? Instead, our firms and workers increasingly compete on the basis of newer, broader and higher quality goods and services. In most cases, American companies can win this kind of competition for global market share, by coming up with more powerful and versatile laptops, cell phones and so on, often producing the technologically advanced new elements themselves.
Innovation comes in many forms, and American companies and workers operate through advanced business organizations that also can provide competitive advantages which outweigh price. Wherever a computer, cell phone or other product is produced or put together, business customers often prefer an American or European company for the service. When businesses wants to buy, for example, coated paper for high-end graphics, which is produced both here and in China, the vast majority still pay higher prices to buy American products, because the U.S. companies can provide better delivery times and terms, more flexible credit, and a more reliable supply of a broader range of products, all services still beyond the capacity of their developing-nation competitors.
A serious public investment agenda, then, follows not only from the classic cases of private underinvestment recognized since Adam Smith, but also from the actual terms of global competitiveness which American companies and workers face today. It’s virtually certain that greater national support for basic R&D ultimately will lead to the development and use of more advanced products, manufacturing processes, and business methods. Similarly, greater support for education and training would ensure that more American workers are truly competitive with their foreign counterparts when it comes to operating effectively in workplaces dense with innovative technologies and operating practices.
The third leg of the President’s public investment program focuses on traditional infrastructure. Most infrastructure investments, to be sure, involve more traditional, price and efficiency-based competition. But whether or not American companies are able to move people and goods from one place to another efficiently, through sound road, rail and air systems, affects their competitiveness -- if not so much with China, than with their counterparts in Europe, Japan and other advanced economies.
The fate of these proposals will also reveal a good deal about the two parties’ real commitment to U.S. competitiveness. With conservatives once again believing that deficits do matter – at those under Democratic presidents -- can they nevertheless distinguish between real public investments and other kinds of federal spending which many of them now consider a scourge? And for the other side of the coin, will the President’s allies in Congress be willing to give up any other kinds of domestic spending in order to finance these new investments?
These tradeoffs were dubbed “cut-and-invest” when Bill Clinton talked them up in 1992 and 1993 – and even he had real trouble selling the cuts to Congress. But the truth is, it mattered less for U.S. competitiveness back then, when China and other low-wage developing nations made little that anyone else wanted to buy. Those days are now long gone, and with them, the stakes for public investment have become much greater.
Last night, as House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan offered a response to the President's State of the Union Address, he argued that government spending is hurting the economy. He talked about budget deficits and national debt. And he claimed he had ideas to fix it. Unfortunately, his solution, most comprehensively borne out in his "Roadmap," and the principles behind it exacerbate a whole slew of economic problems and have little basis in economic reality.
Let's look at Ryan's first claim - that his Roadmap reduces the deficit. It does, but not until well past the middle part of the century. According the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
Because of the Ryan plan's enormous tax cuts for the affluent, even the very large benefit cuts that the plan would make in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security - and the plan's middle-class tax increases - wouldnot put the federal budget on a sustainable course for decades. The federal debt would soar to about 175 percentof the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050.In contrast, most fiscal policy analysts recommend that the debt-to-GDP ratio be stabilized within the next ten years, and at a far lower level.
This contrasts directly with the Rivlin-Dominici plan, which would reduce the federal debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2020, the Bowles-Simpson plan, which would reduce the debt to 60% of GDP by 2023 and 40% by 2035, and even the plan assembled by Demos, the Century Foundation, and the Economic Policy Institute, which reduces the debt to 83% of GDP in 2020.
It is clear that Ryan's plan is not one focused on balancing the budget and reducing deficits or debt. Since Ryan is no fiscal hawk, what does Paul Ryan really care about?
The one thing the Roadmap does incredibly effectively is make dramatic cuts to popular government programs (it basically eliminates Medicare and makes sweeping cuts in Social Security). His reasoning for his massive cuts his that he claims that government spending is bad for the economy. But there is no economic logic to this either - especially right now.
I understand where Ryan's thinking comes from - in good economic times, government investment that leads to borrowing can "crowd out" private investment by raising interest rates, thereby diverting economic activity away from the private sector. This can be a legitimate concern in boom times, which is part of the reason having smaller deficits in good times is generally a good idea; a sizeable government deficit can lead to higher interest rates, which hurt the economy.
These, however, are nothing close to good economic times, and government is not driving out private sector investment and therefore not hurting job creation. How do we know this? There is virtually no inflation - economists are more worried about deflation right now - and a huge shortage of demand. Interest rates are basically the lowest they can possibly be, and the Federal Reserve keeps trying to drive them down. (That's why the Federal Reserve has gone to quantitative easing; it can't lower rates any further.)
Furthermore, it's not clear that Ryan understands the actual danger of debt, because he has effectively said he intends to play chicken with the upcoming vote on the debt limit. On this point, one cannot be any clearer - the best way to quickly explode interest rates is to ruin the full faith and credit of the United States by not increasing the debt limit. Not doing so would increase interest rates and injure the economy dramatically, a reality that fails to square with Ryan's complaints about the economic dangers of debt.
Finally, Ryan compared America's debt situation to that of Greece, Ireland, and Great Britain. This is embarrassing, for him. The Greek and Irish debt crises are completely different animals - the Greece's problems are derived largely from being on the Euro (not an issue for us), and the Irish crisis is financial sector driven; our fiscal issues are not. In Britain, a conservative government is leading a true austerity push, and has become unpopular virtually overnight. So, Britain is an apt analogy but not in the way Ryan means. Rather, it's a warning for what would happen here if American conservatives got their way.
All told, it is hard to find the actual economics behind Ryan's world view, an odd and scary phenomenon to discover in a Budget Committee Chair. Instead, his approach to the economy begins and ends at a strong dislike for government, an odd and scary phenomenon to find in someone who works for the government.
The 21st century economy is more competitive, more technology dense, and more interconnected than ever before. With the the rise of new economic powers, it is clear that the rest of the world has raised its game, and America must raise ours. For years, NDN has advocated an economic strategy for America that does just that. The strategy must include: modernizing and controlling costs in our healthcare and energy systems, investing in infrastructure and worker skills, accelerating innovation and new business development, and engaging with the global economy. Below, please find some useful resources on these topics:
Economic Strategies & Globalizationby Peter Brodnitz, 11/8/07 This presentation details the results of extensive polling conducted by NDN and Benenson Strategy Group in October of 2007 on the American public's opinions about globalization and the changing economy
The Pitfalls of Economic Nostalgiaby Dr. Robert Shapiro, 12/15/10 Shapiro identifies the structural problems behind America's slowest recovery in decades, and offers new approaches to address jobs, housing values, and the stagnating incomes of middle class Americans.
Keeping the Focus on the Struggle of Everyday People: 2010 Editionby Simon Rosenberg, 1/26/2010 More than ever, we need to recognize that the lack of income growth for average families is the greatest domestic challenge facing America today, and lead a national conversation about how we can create a plan that addresses the struggle of everyday people.
A Lost Decade for Everyday Americansby Jake Berliner, 12/17/2009 In this white paper, we argue that everyday Americans are at the end of a “lost decade” and explain the still misunderstood causes of the virulence of the recession.
Investing in Infrastructure and a Clean Economy
What's Next On Climate - Five Strategies for Moving the Clean Economyby Dan Carol, 10/20/10 Efforts to pursue carbon reduction policies have not gone according to plan over the last year. Therefore, we must deploy new strategies for moving the clean economy forward. In this memo, Dan Carol lays out 5 supplemental but decidedly big strategies for doing so.
A Politics of Investment by Simon Rosenberg, 7/27/10 In an article written by Ron Brownstein, Simon argues that "The challenge for us in the next few years is creating a politics of investment during a time of potential austerity to make sure that we're ... funding the future and not the past."
Investing in Our Common Future: U.S. Infrastructure by Michael Moynihan, 11/13/07 Michael Moynihan looks at the current state of public investment in infrastructure and proposes a set of measures to restore our national political will and improve funding mechanisms to rebuild and advance U.S. infrastructure.
21st Century Skills and Learning
Tapping the Resources of America's Community Colleges: by Dr. Robert Shapiro, 7/26/07 Young Americans are increasingly adept at working with computers, but many American workers still lack those skills. Here, we propose a direct new approach to giving U.S. workers the opportunity to develop those skills.
A Laptop in Every Backpack by Simon Rosenberg and Alec Ross, 5/1/07 The more globally interconnected world means that Americans will need more facility with the global communications network. Therefore we believe that America needs to put a laptop in every backpack of every child.
In his weekly address, President Obama describes the path for American success in the more competitive, technologically connected 21st century economy:
We’re living in a new and challenging time, in which technology has made competition easier and fiercer than ever before. Countries around the world are upping their game and giving their workers and companies every advantage possible. But that shouldn’t discourage us. Because I know we can win that competition. I know we can out-compete any other nation on Earth. We just have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to unlock the productivity of American workers, unleash the ingenuity of American businesses, and harness the dynamism of America’s economy.