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On Economic Growth, Hillary Delivers and Trump Pretends

September 26, 2016

To prepare for tonight’s debate, I decided to think through Donald Trump’s promise to deliver 4% annual economic growth. First off, if this is Trump’s goal, then his program is as much a fraud as his foundation or university. If anything, his proposals would slow our already modest growth. To be sure, no one has a silver bullet to raise the economy’s underlying growth rate. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless, and Hillary Clinton’s program will almost certainly raise that growth rate.

Four percent growth is not unprecedented. Under JFK and LBJ, the economy grew an average of 5.2% per year; and Bill Clinton produced 3.8 % average growth over eight years, including five years of 4% growth or more. But they were exceptions: Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter each managed 3.4% average annual growth; George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama each achieved 2% annual growth, and George W. Bush eked out just 1.6% annual growth. Moreover, the Federal Reserve forecasts that the U.S. economy will continue to grow an average of 2% annually for the next decade. This forecast and the record under Obama and Bush II all suggest that strong headwinds are hampering America’s economic growth.

By the arithmetic, economic growth measures how much more goods and services the economy has produced in one year, compared to the preceding year. That tells us that two key factors for higher growth are how many more people have jobs producing goods and services, and how productive, on average, everyone is producing those goods and services. By the arithmetic, strong growth rests substantially on increasing the number of people with jobs and the productivity of the entire workforce.

One reason for the disappointing growth of the last 15 years is that the number of net new workers each year slowed sharply. For that, blame the decline in U.S. fertility rates that began 20 years ago, rising rates of retirement by aging baby boomers, the slowdown in immigration sparked by the Great Recession, and steady erosion in the labor participation rate (LPR). All told, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the U.S. workforce is now growing .5% per year, down from 1.25% per year under Bill Clinton.

So, which candidate has proposed anything that would expand the number of Americans working? Both agree on spending more on infrastructure, but that will have modest effects on long-term growth. Beyond that, one striking feature of Trump’s immigration, healthcare and other proposals is their secondary effect of shrinking the number of people working in the U.S. economy.

 To begin, Trump’s signature pledge to deport 8 to 11 million immigrants would reduce the workforce directly, for those caught and deported; and indirectly, by forcing millions to take cover outside the mainstream economy. Similarly, his promise to repeal Obamacare would increase the time that millions of Americans have to spend out of work for health reasons.

Nor should anyone believe that his $4.4 trillion to $5.7 trillion in tax cuts will somehow induce more people to work — that particular supply-side hokum is refuted by the rising labor participation rate (LPR) after Bill Clinton raised taxes, and the falling LPR after Bush II cut taxes.

By happy contrast, much of Hillary Clinton’s program would have secondary effects that increase the number of people in the labor force and working. Her path to legalization for immigrants will allow an additional eight million adult immigrants to participate fully and openly across the economy. Her plans to broadly expand access to child care and provide universal pre-K education would enable millions of parents to reenter the workforce or move from part-time to full-time jobs.

Moving along, her pledge to achieve universal healthcare coverage, once fulfilled, will lessen the number of people forced to stay home or even give up their jobs for health reasons. Her commitment to pay equity, once met, will encourage more women to enter the workforce or to increase their hours at work, as should her pledge to expand employment for 53 million American adults with disabilities. Finally, Hillary’s plans for expanding access to higher education will raise the labor participation rate, because that rate tends to rise with education.

The arithmetic of growth also depends on how fast productivity increases – and progress in productivity, which grew 2.8% per year in the later 1990s, has collapsed: From 2011 to 2015, productivity increased just 6% per year; and over the first half of this year, productivity actually fell at a rate of .6% per-year.

Three factors are mainly responsible. First, business investment in equipment and other technologies has slumped. In addition, the gap between the skills many workers have and the skills they need has widened. Finally, it appears that the development and use of new technologies, processes, and ways of organizing and running businesses — in a word, innovation — has slowed.

Here, too, Trump offers nothing.  His huge tax cuts would balloon federal deficits, and so raise the cost for business borrowing to invest in new equipment and technologies. Trump also offers nothing to help workers improve their skills, and nothing to stimulate innovation and the broad use of new technologies.

By contrast again, Hillary’s agenda would actively promote progress in productivity. Her plans for tuition-free access to higher education will expand the skills of millions of young people, and her blueprint to reduce budget deficits will ensure that federal borrowing does not raise the cost for business borrowing to invest. Hillary also supports innovation by calling for expanded federal investments in basic R&D and promoting more public-private collaborations to commercialize that R&D. And since innovations often come from young enterprises, her program to expand bank lending for such companies is also well suited to promote innovation.

On economic growth, as on many other issues that will shape America over the next decade, Hillary delivers while Trump blusters.