As protests roil the United States, the country’s center-left economists gaze brightly into their crystal balls. Harvard’s Jason Furman, formerly chair of US President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has warned Democrats – eager to defeat President Donald Trump in the November election – that “the best economic data ... in the history of this country” will emerge just before voters head to the polls. Paul Krugman is likewise predicting a “fast recovery.” The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office agrees. The stock market seems equally optimistic.
The arithmetic behind this thinking is simple. The CBO expects real GDP to shrink by 12% in the second quarter, and by 40% in annual terms. But it forecasts a third-quarter rebound of 5.4% – resulting in spectacular annual growth of 23.5%.
That is certainly possible: already in May, unemployment figures took a favorable turn, and it is looking like the second-quarter slump may not be as bad as projected. But, even if the CBO is right on both counts, GDP at election time would be seven percentage points below its first-quarter level, and unemployment would be above – possibly far above – 10%.
Let’s assume that the optimists are right about the third quarter. What happens next? Will the economy continue merrily along, with incomes and jobs bouncing back? Or will it stay in depression, requiring a new revolution – or, more precisely, a new New Deal – to save it?
To assess this question, Furman, Krugman, and the CBO share a mental model. They regard the pandemic as an economic shock, like an earthquake or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is a disruption to a solid structure, a deviation from normal growth. To get America moving again, what is mainly needed is confidence, perhaps aided by stimulus. If consumers channel their pent-up demand into new spending, this “shock-stimulus” model dictates, then businesses will revive investment, and soon enough, all will be well once again.
This is how mainstream center-left economists and policymakers have thought about recessions and recoveries since at least the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, pushed through tax cuts. But it ignores three major changes in the US economy since then: globalization, the rise of services in consumption and employment, and the impact of personal and corporate debts.
In the 1960s, the US had a balanced economy that produced goods for both businesses and households, at all levels of technology, with a fairly small (and tightly regulated) financial sector. It produced largely for itself, importing mainly commodities.
Today, the US produces for the world, mainly advanced investment goods and services, in sectors such as aerospace, information technology, arms, oilfield services, and finance. And it imports far more consumer goods, such as clothing, electronics, cars, and car parts, than it did a half-century ago.
And whereas cars, televisions, and household appliances drove US consumer demand in the 1960s, a much larger share of domestic spending today goes (or went) to restaurants, bars, hotels, resorts, gyms, salons, coffee shops, and tattoo parlors, as well as college tuition and doctor’s visits. Tens of millions of Americans work in these sectors.
Finally, American household spending in the 1960s was powered by rising wages and growing home equity. But wages have been largely stagnant since at least 2000, and spending increases since 2010 were powered by rising personal and corporate debts. House values are now stagnant at best, and will likely fall in the months ahead.
Mainstream economics pays little attention to such structural questions. Instead, it assumes that business investment responds mostly to the consumer, whose spending is dictated equally by income and desire. The distinction between “essential” and “superfluous” does not exist. Debt burdens are largely ignored.
But demand for many US-made capital goods now depends on global conditions. Orders for new aircraft will not recover while half of all existing planes are grounded. At current prices, the global oil industry is not drilling new wells. Even at home, though existing construction projects may be completed, plans for new office towers or retail outlets won’t be launched soon. And as people commute less, cars will last longer, so demand for them (and gasoline) will suffer.
Faced with radical uncertainty, US consumers will save more and spend less. Even if the government replaces their lost incomes for a time, people know that stimulus is short term. What they do not know is when the next job offer – or layoff – will come along.
Moreover, people do distinguish between needs and wants. Americans need to eat, but they mostly don’t need to eat out. They don’t need to travel. Restaurant owners and airlines therefore have two problems: they can’t cover costs while their capacity is limited for public-health reasons, and demand would be down even if the coronavirus disappeared. This explains why many businesses are not reopening even though they legally can. Others are reopening, but fear they cannot hold out for long. And the many millions of workers in America’s vast services sector are realizing that their jobs are simply not essential.
Meanwhile, US household debts – rent, mortgage, and utility arrears, as well as interest on education and car loans – have continued to mount. True, stimulus checks have helped: defaults have so far been modest, and many landlords have been accommodating. But as people face long periods with lower incomes, they will continue to hoard funds to ensure that they can repay their fixed debts. As if all this were not enough, falling sales- and income-tax revenues are prompting US state and local governments to cut spending, compounding the loss of jobs and incomes.
America’s economic plight is structural. It is not simply the consequence of Trump’s incompetence or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s poor political strategy. It reflects systemic changes over 50 years that have created an economy based on global demand for advanced goods, consumer demand for frills, and ever-growing household and business debts. This economy was in many ways prosperous, and it provided jobs and incomes to many millions. Yet it was a house of cards, and COVID-19 has blown it down.
“Reopen America” is therefore an economic and political fantasy. Incumbent politicians crave a cheery growth rebound, and the depth of the collapse makes possible some attractive short-term numbers. But taking them seriously will merely set the stage for a new round of disillusion. As nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality show, disillusion is America’s one big growth sector right now.
*James K. Galbraith, a former executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, is Professor of Government and Chair in Government/Business Relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know and Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020, and published here with permission.