What are the real choices before Washington this fall?
The number one issue before the nation is economic recovery. Unemployment rates have been too high for too long. Here are a few ideas about what we can expect and hope for during the next few months:
1. Don't Depend on an Out-of-Ammo Fed. Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke wants to appear to be doing everything he can. However, there is little more the Fed/FOMC can do to help the economy since December 16, 2008 when the Federal Funds rate was lowered to the Zero Bound. Quantitative Easing hasn't made much difference. How much can the Fed spend buying long-term Treasury bonds to lower long-term interest rates, even if it sells short-term Treasurys at the same time? How much difference does it make for the Fed to buy up long-term bonds if the Treasury is selling new ones at the next window?
2. Implement Dodd-Frank to Help Address the Liquidity Trap. The economy would turn around if the Fed's easy-money policies led to more bank lending. But bankers are still worried about their balance sheets. Lax oversight by bank regulators has been replaced by close questioning. Bad loans are still not all recognized and new categories of potentially bad loans have opened up, e.g., the sovereign debt of the PIIGS countries, whose debts are freezing bank liquidity despite of banks EU rescue programs. Speeding up implementation of Dodd-Frank financial reforms would improve confidence in and among U.S. banks.
3. Pass the President's Second Jobs Program. Another $450 billion for job creation may not be sufficient. However, it is necessary and a CNN poll and others show, by wide margin, that the U.S. public wants this program implemented.
4. Encourage Entrepreneurship. Creating jobs is not just about getting existing firms to hire more workers. It's about encouraging people to start up new businesses. Incubators help. Entrepreneurship can be taught - it's like a language. Governments at all levels can do big and small things to make it easier for people to create businesses.
5. Modify Fuel Prices to Encourage Green Jobs. Federal subsidies of alternative energy and energy efficiency didn't work as well as hoped because prices for fossil fuels don't reflect their full costs (and also because many states and localities did not have staff ready in 2009 to respond to stimulus programs offering money for green jobs). Subsidies for fossil fuels need to be ended and a tax on gasoline or carbon should be imposed. Tom Friedman had a good op-ed on this topic today ("Is It Weird Enough Yet?"). The last Congress rejected cap-and-trade and a carbon tax, but the pressure to find money to pay for Medicare and Social Security, as well as more evidence on global warming, might bring these proposals back to debate and action.
6. Most of All, Reform the Tax Code to Encourage Job Creation. If U.S. payroll tax rates are lowered significantly, as President Obama has suggested, this will have a dual benefit, encouraging employers to hire and putting money in the hands of middle-class consumers, who will spend it. This could be paid for by raising the top tax for those earning, say, $500,000 or more, and gradually raising the cap on the payroll tax (as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, has proposed). This would return the income tax to a semblance of progressivity and would tax those best able to bear the burden and least likely to spend new money.
George Magnus in the Financial Times describes the world's predicament as a "once-in-a-generation crisis of capitalism", bequeathed by the excesses of the 1980s-2008 period. The stakes couldn't be higher.