We’ve argued for just about forever that you can’t have a strong economy without strong employment, wages and benefits for the majority of citizens. To us, this just seems blindingly obvious and we are mystified by those who demand labor work for less and get fewer benefits–that somehow we can shrink ourselves to prosperity.
Maybe we’re just not explaining ourselves well enough. So here’s an attempt by James Livingston, Rutgers economics history professor who’s been studying American capitalism for 35 years. In a New York Times article he makes the same points we’ve made, but heck, it’s worth reprinting in another attempt to explain what we think is true.
AS an economic historian who has been studying American capitalism for 35 years, I’m going to let you in on the best-kept secret of the last century: private investment — that is, using business profits to increase productivity and output — doesn’t actually drive economic growth. Consumer debt and government spending do. Private investment isn’t even necessary to promote growth.
This is, to put it mildly, a controversial claim. Economists will tell you that private business investment causes growth because it pays for the new plant or equipment that creates jobs, improves labor productivity and increases workers’ incomes. As a result, you’ll hear politicians insisting that more incentives for private investors — lower taxes on corporate profits — will lead to faster and better-balanced growth.
The general public seems to agree. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll in May, a majority of Americans believe that increased corporate taxes “would discourage American companies from creating jobs.”
But history shows that this is wrong.
Between 1900 and 2000, real gross domestic product per capita (the output of goods and services per person) grew more than 600 percent. Meanwhile, net business investment declined 70 percent as a share of G.D.P. What’s more, in 1900 almost all investment came from the private sector — from companies, not from government — whereas in 2000, most investment was either from government spending (out of tax revenues) or “residential investment,” which means consumer spending on housing, rather than business expenditure on plants, equipment and labor.
In other words, over the course of the last century, net business investment atrophied while G.D.P. per capita increased spectacularly. And the source of that growth? Increased consumer spending, coupled with and amplified by government outlays.
The architects of the Reagan revolution tried to reverse these trends as a cure for the stagflation of the 1970s, but couldn’t. In fact, private or business investment kept declining in the ’80s and after. Peter G. Peterson, a former commerce secretary, complained that real growth after 1982 — after President Ronald Reagan cut corporate tax rates — coincided with “by far the weakest net investment effort in our postwar history.”
President George W. Bush’s tax cuts had similar effects between 2001 and 2007: real growth in the absence of new investment. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, retained corporate earnings that remain uninvested are now close to 8 percent of G.D.P., a staggering sum in view of the unemployment crisis we face.
So corporate profits do not drive economic growth — they’re just restless sums of surplus capital, ready to flood speculative markets at home and abroad. In the 1920s, they inflated the stock market bubble, and then caused the Great Crash. Since the Reagan revolution, these superfluous profits have fed corporate mergers and takeovers, driven the dot-com craze, financed the “shadow banking” system of hedge funds and securitized investment vehicles, fueled monetary meltdowns in every hemisphere and inflated the housing bubble.
Why, then, do so many Americans support cutting taxes on corporate profits while insisting that thrift is the cure for what ails the rest of us, as individuals and a nation? Why have the 99 percent looked to the 1 percent for leadership when it comes to our economic future?
A big part of the problem is that we doubt the moral worth of consumer culture. Like the abstemious ant who scolds the feckless grasshopper as winter approaches, we think that saving is the right thing to do. Even as we shop with abandon, we feel that if only we could contain our unruly desires, we’d be committing ourselves to a better future. But we’re wrong.
Consumer spending is not only the key to economic recovery in the short term; it’s also necessary for balanced growth in the long term. If our goal is to repair our damaged economy, we should bank on consumer culture — and that entails a redistribution of income away from profits toward wages, enabled by tax policy and enforced by government spending. (The increased trade deficit that might result should not deter us, since a large portion of manufactured imports come from American-owned multinational corporations that operate overseas.)
We don’t need the traders and the C.E.O.’s and the analysts — the 1 percent — to collect and manage our savings. Instead, we consumers need to save less and spend more in the name of a better future. We don’t need to silence the ant, but we’d better start listening to the grasshopper.
Beezer here. It’s not that one shouldn’t have savings and investments as part of a personal budget, it’s just that if everyone suddenly raises savings and stops spending and investing it’s really, really bad for the economy overall. So when the economy tanks, particularly when it’s caused by a financial panic or collapse, creating millions of well paying jobs is the necessary response: If for no other reason that it replaces depleted consumption. You can’t fire people into employment. You cannot grow an economy by shrinking it. You can only reduce deficits and pay off debt by allowing the majority of citizens to have well paying jobs, not by reducing their pay and firing the rest. To us this is obvious. To many, for reasons that confound me, it’s not obvious. Oh well, maybe Livingston’s article will help the blind to see.