Popular Economics Weekly

The Fed has said it wouldn’t begin to boost interest rates until sustainable economic growth was achieved. However, no one has actually defined what that means. Fed Chairman Bernanke defines it as when full employment is achieved, or the unemployment rate drops to around 6 percent. Others have said it is when Gross Domestic Product growth is back to the historical 3 percent plus rate from its 2 percent average of late.

But those metrics aren’t really definitions of sustainable growth, since they don’t take into account that portion of GDP invested in future growth. For no growth is sustainable unless investments are made in future, longer term growth, rather than held in corporate coffers or excess bank reserves. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “paying forward” campaign speech is a good place to start in search of a truer definition of sustainable growth.

At a campaign stop in Massachusetts while running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, she famously said, "You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

That is as good a definition of sustainable economic growth as we can find. For instance, future growth isn’t possible without adequate infrastructure. Yet how much of current economic activity is funneled to roads these days with the American Society of Civil Engineers saying there is some $2.2 trillion in deferred infrastructure maintenance? Or, how much is being spent on education?

A recent OECD study of education worldwide cited the U.S. as the biggest spender in elementary education, but with meager results. And for post-high school programs, the United States is far outspent in public dollars. U.S. taxpayers picked up 36 cents of every dollar spent on college and vocational training programs. Families and private sources picked up the balance. Whereas in other OECD nations, it was roughly reversed: The public picked up 68 cents of every dollar in advanced training and private sources picked up the other 32 cents.

"When people talk about other countries out-educating the United States, it needs to be remembered that those other nations are out-investing us in education as well," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union.

But there is one measure of sustainability that almost no one talks about, and that is boosting sustainable consumer spending. We know consumer spending makes up some 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, yet current economic policies depress household incomes by putting most of the tax burden on wage and salary earners via payroll taxes. Whereas income taxes have been steadily reduced over the past 30 years, so that billionaires such as Mitt Romney and Warren Buffet pay effective tax percentages in the teens.

Rutgers economic historian James Livingston has put it best in various Op-eds and articles.

“Growth has happened precisely because net private investment has been declining since 1919 and because consumer expenditures have, meanwhile, been increasing. In theory, the Great Depression was a financial meltdown first caused, and then cured, by central bankers. In fact, the underlying cause of this disaster wasn’t a short-term credit contraction engineered by bankers. The underlying cause of the Great Depression was a fundamental shift of income shares away from wages and consumption to corporate profits, which produced a tidal wave of surplus capital that couldn’t be profitably invested in goods production — and wasn’t invested in goods production.”

“Now look,” said Senator Warren, “you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

There will always be a debate about how to share the wealth pie, but there should be no debate about investing in the future of America, which means our youth, but also a healthy environment and yes; a well-functioning health care system.

Harlan Green © 2013

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