My chart of the year: The investment drought continues

I’m sorry, every time I hear about the need to boost consumer spending I have to stop myself from pounding the table. As we round into 2012, the real weakness in the economy lies on the investment side, not the consumption side. Take a look at the following graph of net domestic investment as a share of net domestic product (‘net’ means depreciation is subtracted). I consider this graph, which expands on one I gave to the Atlantic, to be my ‘chart of the year’.

This chart, which runs through the third quarter of 2011, displays several disturbing patterns:

  • Despite rebounding from its recession valley, net business investment as a share of net domestic product is still far below historical levels.
  • Household and institutional net investment as a share of net domestic product  is at a 40-year low.
  • And perhaps most disturbing, government net investment is only 1% of  net domestic product, a 40-year low.

Let me repeat that: Government net investment as a share of net domestic product is at a 40-year low. I had to check this last one a couple of times to make sure it was really true.  This is a true failure of national economic policy. Government is punking out, just at the time when a public investment surge is needed to make up for the private investment drought.  As a country, we should be investing more, not less.

Update: The original post said ‘net national product’ where I meant to say ‘net domestic product’.  Sorry.

Scale and Innovation in Today’s Economy

I have a new paper on “Scale and Innovation in Today’s Economy”. The paper was also written up in this week’s Economist, in a piece entitled “Big and Clever”

The Gingrich Tax Plan

I have a new essay on the Atlantic.com on Gingrich’s tax plan.

Here’s the essay:

“It starts very simply: Taxes, lower taxes.”

That was the first line of Newt Gingrich’s explanation of how he would create jobs, given at the December 10 Republican debate in Iowa. Gingrich talked about his desire to end the capital gains tax and cut the corporate income tax to 12.5%. In addition, Gingrich has proposed a 15% flat tax as an option for all Americans, going further than the 20% flat tax advocated by Rick Perry.

On one level, Gingrich’s intense focus on lower taxes fits current dogma in the Republican party, which puts tax cuts above almost everything else. He is playing to the conservative base, as a way of counteracting some of his other personal liabilities.

If enacted in their entirety, Gingrich’s proposed changes would turn the U.S. tax system from progressive to regressive. Someone earning $40,000 in wages could pay a higher tax rate than another person who made $400,000 a year in capital gains.

This shift from progressive to regressive is not acceptable, of course. The tax system should be a tool for reducing the stresses of inequality in the economy, not increasing it. That’s especially true now, coming out of such a devastating recession where so many American are unemployed or underemployed.

But these tax cuts, which lie at the heart of the Gingrich program, would have another striking implication as well, which has not yet been remarked on. He is targeting precisely those taxes — like the corporate income tax and capital gains tax — that capture the gains from globalization. In other words, Gingrich is waging war on Washington’s ability to tax “globalized” income, which is likely to grow faster than domestic income for the foreseeable future.

What do I mean by “globalized” income? By my definition, globalized income means funds that come directly or indirectly from the operations of U.S. companies in the global economy. The most obvious example of globalized income is the money that companies report as “rest-of-world” or foreign profits. Today, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that “rest-of-world” profits are running at a $450 billion annual rate, small potatoes compared to a $15 trillion economy.

However, the category of globalized income includes a lot more than foreign profits. For example, suppose that a U.S-based company is highly profitable in Asia. Even if those profits are not repatriated, the company’s share price is likely to rise. If an American stockholder sells those shares and collects a $5 million capital gain, that gain is reported as domestic income. But in fact, it’s due purely to the operations of that company overseas. Similarly, when the CEO of that company cashes his or her stock options, it’s the same thing. The stock option gains get reported as domestic income, even though they are directly connected to the company’s operations overseas.

Here’s another example. Suppose that a U.S. furniture retailer switches suppliers. Instead of buying from a domestic manufacturer, they now get their furniture from a cheaper foreign manufacturer. Because of this outsourcing, corporate profits rise, and the CEO gets a big bonus. To the government statisticians, that bonus looks like pure domestic wage and salary income. However, it flows purely out of the company’s ability to take advantage of the cheaper prices on the global market place.

Ordinary workers generally don’t have globalized income–their wages and salaries are purely domestic, unless they happen to be working directly on exports. Globalized income flows to those people whose incomes rise when the company as a whole does well–shareholders and high-ranking executives . And those are the people who are affected by capital gain taxes, corporate income taxes, and progressive tax rates on high earners.

And here’s where we get back to Newt Gingrich and his plan. The U.S. population is being separated into two groups: Those people who are benefiting from the increased globalization of the U.S. economy in their work lives, and those who are not. This is the big divide in the economy right now–and we don’t need a tax proposal that just widens the gap.

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