Lawrence Summers is a professor at and past president of Harvard University. He was treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and an economic adviser to President Obama from 2009 through 2010.
Issues of inequality, fairness, middle-class living standards and job creation have been central to the U.S. presidential campaign. Rightly so. For many years, the incomes of all groups tended to move together. Indeed, as a graduate student in the late 1970s, I was taught that it was a “stylized fact” that the shares of U.S. total income going to profits and to wages, and to the rich and to the poor, were constant. All of this has changed. It is totally appropriate that widening inequality and the associated stalling of middle-class living standards should become an urgent political issue.
What is unfortunate is that many, in their eagerness to focus on fairness, neglect the single most important determinant of almost every aspect of economic performance — the rate of growth of total income, as reflected in the gross domestic product. Because those emphasizing strategies that center on business tax-cutting and deregulation, and that favor the wealthy, have placed the most emphasis on growth over the past 35 years, the objective of increasing growth has been discredited in the minds of too many progressives.
The reality is that more growth means more employment. And with the college-graduate unemployment rate only 2.5 percent, the newly employed are disproportionately less educated and more disadvantaged. It can hardly be an accident that the decades of maximum growth — the 1960s and 1990s — also saw the most rapid job growth and most rapid increase in middle-class living standards.
Growth provides the wherewithal for increased federal revenue and so encourages the protection of vital social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare. It creates headroom for initiatives such as expansions of the earned-income tax credit. Tight labor markets are the best social program, as they force employers to hire and mentor inexperienced people in order to be adequately staffed. Some years ago, I estimated that for each 1 percent point increase in adult male employment, the employment of young black men rose 7 percent. More recent research confirms that economic growth has an outsized benefit for younger people and minorities.
More growth has other benefits, as well. It strengthens the power of the American example in the world. It obviates the need for desperation monetary policies that risk future financial stability. Greater growth also has historically operated to reduce crime and encourage environmental protection, and it contributes to public optimism about the country that our children will inherit.
The reality is that if U.S. growth continues to have a 2 percent ceiling, it is doubtful that we will achieve any of our major national objectives. If, on the other hand, we can boost growth to 3 percent, interest rates will normalize, middle-class wages will rise faster than inflation, debt burdens will tend to melt away and the power of the American example will be greatly enhanced.
How, then, can growth be accelerated? In an economy like that of the United States, the vast majority of job creation and income growth comes from the private sector. If the next president is lucky enough to oversee the creation of 10 million jobs from 2017 to 2020, more than 8 million of those jobs will surely come from businesses hiring in response to profit opportunities. The question is not whether business success is desirable. The question is how it can best be achieved.
At a moment when capital costs are close to zero, the stock market is at a record high and businesses are earning record profit margins, we do not need to bribe businesses to make investments that now do not seem worthwhile to them. There is no case for reducing already low corporate taxes or removing regulations, unless it can be shown that these have costs in excess of benefits.
What is needed is more demand for the product of business. This is the core of the case for policy approaches to raising public investment, increasing workers’ purchasing power and promoting competitiveness. That such policies also contribute to fairness is not a reason to lose sight of the central objective of promoting growth. Often in economics there are trade-offs. But not always. We can and must promote both fairness and growth.