A colleague of mine whose Stage Name is Dr. Bobby J alerted me to the fact that the Economic Report of the President (ERP) was published this February. The ERP2015 is the latest in a long line of such annual reports that are widely available since 1995 when I was just a macroeconomist in diapers. Here is what the web site says about this annual publication: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/collection.action;jsessionid=FKpBJ8tDXS8K1LZ8TlQvpC8sD7VGYWcnJs3yWr3DfJ2wXPJhXlJG!-1529450296!-1448731224?collectionCode=ERP&browsePath=2015&isCollapsed=false&leafLevelBrowse=false&isDocumentResults=true&ycord=0
The Economic Report of the President is an annual report written by the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. It overviews the nation's economic progress using text and extensive data appendices. The Economic Report of the President is transmitted to Congress no later than ten days after the submission of the Budget of the United States Government. Supplementary reports can be issued to the Congress which contain additional and/or revised recommendations. Documents are available in ASCII text and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), with many of the tables also available for separate viewing and downloading as spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel (XLS).
I know – I am putting you to sleep. But for those of you who like to keep up with the economy, let me recommend this 414 page document for several reasons. First, it always contains an analysis of the past year and a forecast of the future economy. The 2015 ERP doesn’t say a lot about 2015 but does have a very complete forecast of the US economy for the coming 10 years. While you might not agree with the forecast, at least you see its composition and causal factors.
Second, the document is full of historical data. There are charts, tables and figures in each chapter. Even better is the appendix which houses 26 historical tables. The latter makes it easy for you to research questions relating to past inflation, past unemployment rates, and so on. The 26 tables have just about everything you could want from GDP to wages to ownership of government securities.
Finally, the body of the report has several chapters that look into what the current administration believes are key economic issues and goals. The ERP2015 has chapters on Challenges in the US Labor Market, Business Tax Reform, Economic Benefits and the Foundation for a Low-Carbon Energy Future. These chapters contain the explanations and defenses for the Administration’s new budget proposals. These chapters are, of course, very political, biased, and incomplete.
50 Shades of Grey is a movie that my mommy won’t let me see. But I did some research and found that the term “50 shades of grey” has an interesting meaning. It means that any issue may have a lot of facets to it. And one can believe that because the issue is so complicated and multifaceted that one cannot easily come to a simple binary conclusion about it. Thus all the shades of grey mean you can’t summarize an issue and say it is right or wrong; good or bad; hot or cold. Apparently there is something in the movie about whips and chains but I won’t go into that.
Interesting in the ERP2015 is the whole issue of income distribution. As we know, President Obama is very keen on improving income distribution. His speeches and what you see in the various chapters of this volume constitute a case for improved worker earnings. He also favors entitlements for the poor and middle class and higher tax rates on the rich as means to attain income equality.
While economists might favor the goal, some would argue about the means or ways. Some economists point to a trade-off between income equality and national economic growth. Others worry that Obama’s approach would create a larger and thus riskier national debit.
ERP2015 adds fuel to this discussion. The writers noted that there are three salient facts about US economic performance – slowdowns in US labor force and productivity and widening of the income distribution. So the President’s economists did an interesting analysis. They asked what might have happened to the nation’s average income if each of these slowdowns had NOT occurred between 1973 and 2014. By doing this exercise we get some insight into the relative importance of each of these three problem areas. The shades of grey are:
If the labor participation rate had not fallen, incomes would have risen by an additional $3,000 per person.
If the income distribution had not fallen, incomes would have risen by an additional $9,000 per person
If productivity had not fallen, incomes would have risen by an additional $30,000.
Can we conclude anything from this exercise by the President’s economists? I think so. While we could have raised incomes with policies that increase labor participation or income equality, the big dog in this contest is productivity. High productivity alone would have increased incomes by 58%. Productivity accounted for 72% of the improvements brought by all three factors. Economists do these kinds of analyses all the time but they are not beyond criticism.We have to recognize that this analysis is counterfactual. We are asking what might have happened in the past had one or more factors behaved differently. Much depends on the models used. One could criticize this analysis on many counts. Even if the conclusions are correct for the past, that does not mean the same effects would be generated in the future.
With these caveats, the black or white part of this is the overwhelming role played by productivity in increasing national income. This does not say that policies for income redistribution are wrong or bad – but it does establish a clear pecking order as we think about the future.
While ERP2015 is clear about policies to improve these three factors as a means to increase national income, there is a clear bias in this report. The bias is in using government spending and regulation to enhance productivity. Another bias is ignoring any adverse impacts of income equality policies on productivity growth. Almost totally silent in these 400+ pages is any discussion of the known and published long-term increases in national debt – and how increases in national debt in the decade ahead will be a drag on national income.
Unrestrained entitlements, aggressive family-friendly workplace policies, expanded regulatory zeal in health and energy, and half-hearted business tax reform contribute to an environment of rising government debt and business uncertainty. The President is right to place his focus on rising productivity. But the debate is not so much about the goal but on how you get it. Too much policy emphasis on income inequality if it does have the above trade-offs promises to hurt all Americans. A more complete and less biased approach in this book would have been refreshing.