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The State of Our Political Economy

Irwin M. Stelzer

This is the time that tries economists’ models. It has become the fashion at this time of year for forecasters to opine on the growth of GDP, the level of unemployment, the inflation rate next year to at least one decimal place. I respect those who consult their models and intuition to come up with forecasts, but have neither the wit nor the courage to attempt such an exercise. Instead, I offer a comment on one aspect of 2013 that is often overlooked: the state of our political economy. The coming year will see a war between politics and economics, between a political class bent on transferring resources from the private to the less productive public sector, and an entrepreneurial class that, uninhibited by policy errors, can power growth at a rate most forecasters do not see in their crystal balls. That war will be waged whatever the result of negotiations, underway as I write, to prevent a leap off the fiscal cliff.

Most of the news in the closing days of 2012 has not been good. Holiday spending grew at the anemic rate of 0.7 percent according to one source (other surveys disagree), consumer confidence and share prices dipped, activity slowed in some regions, and negotiations over the cliff made clear that President Obama feels no need to compromise with a fractured and inept Republican House, over this or any of the issues faced in 2013.

The so-called fiscal cliff was a sideshow, distracting attention from two key and unresolved political issues that will play out in decisions about economic policy. The first is the rancorous tone of political life, due less to personality clashes than to profound differences in ideology. The president wants the “rich” subjected to higher tax rates to fund an expansion of governmenta comparable increase in the tax take by closing loopholes will not do, for reasons that mystify those who don’t understand that one of the president’s goals is to fracture the Republican Party, as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out in his columns and on Fox. And he has no intention of reining in spending. On the other side of the political divide are many Republicans, with a majority in the House, who believe any tax increases provide revenues that feed a freedom-threatening growth of government, and stifle incentives for private-sector actors to invest and create jobs. In addition there are practical politics: The president wants to keep his left on his side, and congressional Republicans believe a vote for an increase in tax rates is a vote to join the unemployment queue. Those competing views foretell a year of battles over spending and tax policyuncertainty, as market watchers like to call it.

Unfortunately, early in 2013 this market-rattling rancor will have multiple platforms on which it can be displayed. On January 29 the president delivers his State of the Union Address, his favored platform from which to attack his opponents. The televised meeting of both Houses of Congress provides a huge audience, and his targets, arrayed before him in the audience, have no prospect of responding before an audience of comparable size, as the members of the Supreme Court have learned. If you want to see good manners, don’t look to the president, who plans to let the country know just what he thinks of the Republican opposition, which isn’t very much. Not designed to smooth the path to compromise.

Then, there is the small matter of the debt ceiling. Monday the government reaches the limit of what it can lawfully borrow, but Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner can get by until February by juggling accountsa juggling act that might put corporate treasurers behind bars if they emulated the keeper of our nation’s books. If Republicans somewhere along the line waive their right to hold out for spending cuts in return for raising the debt ceiling, they will have surrendered their last chance to rein in Obama’s spending. The last time congressional Republicans unholstered this weapon America lost its triple-A debt rating. But Republicans feel they are in the last-chance saloon, with the debt ceiling negotiations their only weapon to force Obama to trade spending cuts for an increase in the ceiling.

The good news is that these opportunities for the expression of mutual distaste are concentrated in the early part of the year. The bad news is that there is no sign that the politicians are prepared to mount a serious attack on the $1 trillion annual deficits that are adding to the nation’s debt mountain, or to modify the unaffordable retirement, health care and other commitments made to America’s aging population. As Hudson Institute scholar Chris DeMuth noted in a recent essay in The Weekly Standard, “America’s de facto fiscal policy since the early 1960s [has been] continuous government borrowing to pay for current consumption.” America’s structural deficitthe one that will persist even if the economy recovers fullycomes to almost 7 percent of GDP, the highest of any rich nation with the exception of Japan.

Offsetting these depressing (in more ways than one) politics are signs of strength in the economy.

  • The private sector has been adding jobs by the millions despite the weakness of the recovery and the construction sector. Now, with the average workweek for construction workers at its highest level in seven years, hiring in a sector that has bled jobs cannot be far behind.
  • The housing market is on the upswing. Sales of existing homes rose last month by 14.5 percent over last November, sales of new homes are rising, and prices, although still far from their pre-bust peaks, jumped 6.9 percent this year, the largest gain since 2005. Applications for building permits are up. Inventories of new homes for sale are at a 50-year low, and inventories of previously owned houses for sale are at an 11-year low. Thanks to Ben Bernanke’s low mortgage interest rates, rising rental rates that make ownership relatively more attractive, and an improving jobs market that encourages young couples to trade the comfort of their parents’ basements for homes of their own.
  • Vehicle sales continue strong as Americans replace their aging cars and light trucks.
  • Consumers are in good shape. Before the strum and drang about the cliff hit their confidence, and before Sandy hit an area accounting for about 24 percent of national spending, consumer spending and incomes rose nicely. Debt payments are claiming the lowest portion of household incomes since 1983, leaving more cash for other spending.
  • Fracking has produced a boom in drilling, already created 500,000 jobs, by one estimate, will result in $90 billion of new investment, and has America on course to a future of cheap energy that is attracting manufacturing firms to expand here rather than abroadgas prices are only one-third of those in Europe. Unfortunately, fracking and cheap gas make government subsidies for costly renewables even more difficult to defend, and might prompt the Obama administration’s regulators to bow to environmental pressure groups and a gaggle of Hollywood stars, and stifle shale gas and oil development.
  • Corporate balance sheets are strong, and investible funds ample. Add policy certainty and investment might move from planning to implementation.

If there were a scientific method of predicting whether political drag will offset the private sector’s inclination to go about the business of investing, creating jobs, and adding to wealth I would use it. There isn’t. All I can offer is my guess that even inept government cannot for long stifle the animal spirits of America’s investors and consumers, and my best wishes for the New Year.

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