In January, just after the lame-duck session of Congress had extended the costly George W. Bush tax cuts, I spoke with Lawrence Summers, the former chairman of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council.
Summers, who had returned to his professor’s chair at Harvard, was sanguine about the direction of the economy, which he thought had “the wind at its back” thanks to a combination of new fiscal stimuli.
For businesses, he said, there was the 2 percent payroll-tax holiday and the 100 percent tax write-off for capital investments made during the year. For consumers, the extension of the Bush tax cuts would, he hoped, encourage individuals to spend the tax money they saved on goods and services. In sum, he predicted the U.S. economy would grow between 3.5 percent and 4 percent in 2011.
We now know that won’t happen. Most economists expect the U.S. economy will grow on the order of, at best, 2 percent for 2011, far below the rosy predictions many of them made --Summers was hardly alone -- earlier in the year.
As we look forward to what may be one of the more important speeches of Obama’s first term -- and one that, assuming he can briefly pry Americans’ attention away from the NFL’s opening night, may go a long way in determining whether he gets a chance at a second term -- it’s worth revisiting another important point Summers made in our conversation in January.
We were talking about how to reduce the stubbornly high unemployment rate -- stuck now at 9.1 percent, after exactly zero net jobs were created in August -- and he pointed out that consumer demand for goods and services is the key to getting people back to work.
“You don’t hire more waiters unless the waiters you have in your restaurants have more work than they can handle,” he said. “There’s a continuing shortage of demand, and that’s the root cause of unemployment.” He continued: “What you need to do is have more output with more people, and the way you have more output with more people is you need people who want to buy that output, and that’s why it comes back to demand.”
Summers said there were many ways to stimulate this demand: by increasing exports, by encouraging companies to make new investments earlier than they otherwise would, and by substituting new technology for older technology. “I’ve got three PC’s in my basement, but I still want an iPad,” he said by way of example.
He also said demand can be created by hiring people to fix the nation’s infrastructure. “If there was ever a time to invest in infrastructure,” he insisted, “it’s a time when 10-year interest rates are in the low threes. It’s a time when construction unemployment is at 19 or 20 percent, and it’s at a time when our infrastructure is older than it’s ever been.”
Finally, he said, demand can be further stimulated by encouraging people to consume more than they have since the Great Recession took hold almost three years ago.
Pretending for a moment that Summers was back in his cramped office one flight above the Oval Office, and again had recommended to Obama that he urge people to consume more, what might Obama say tonight to get consumers’ attention and encourage them to hit the stores, showrooms and restaurants? For starters, how about giving the 110 million households in the country that earn less than $250,000 annually a nontransferable voucher for $5,000 that can be spent any time in 2012 on American-made products and services?
This would cost the Treasury $550 billion -- but unlike much of the 2009 $787 billion stimulus program, this money would go right into the hands of consumers and would only have value if they used it to buy American in 2012, stimulating demand for American products and -- one would think -- encouraging American businesses to hire workers to make those goods and services. (I’m aware that it is sometimes difficult to judge whether a product with foreign components is “American-made,” but surely guidelines can be decided upon.)
Another idea -- courtesy of my father -- involves not just a continuation of the 2011 payroll-tax holiday, but also an expansion in such a way that would best help those in need and the larger economy.
Under this plan, workers would have the full 6.2 percent deducted from their paychecks. However, those who ended up making less than $250,000 would be sent a rebate in the form of nontransferable voucher for as much as $6,600, again only good if spent quickly on American-made goods and services.
It would also be wise for Obama to endorse the much-discussed idea of allowing homeowners in financial distress to refinance their home mortgages at the prevailing low interest rates, thus saving them billions of dollars in annual mortgage payments -- money that can be spent buying goods and services.
Lower monthly mortgage payments would help keep people in their homes and out of foreclosure. Yes, banks would get lower interest income, but they would have some income and a performing loan, better than being stuck with nothing but an unsalable home.
These are only a few ideas -- and I feel certain readers will find flaws in all of them -- but one thing is now clear: The strategy employed by both Bush and Obama of first propping up those at the top of the financial pyramid with the hope that they would then make capital available to everyone else -- a sort of evolved Reagan-era trickle-down approach -- has failed miserably.
Far better to get money into the hands of the people who really need it to keep themselves and their families fed, clothed and nourished from one day to the next. Until that happens, Summers’ much-hoped-for pickup in consumer demand just won’t happen.
(William D. Cohan, a former investment banker and the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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