Should we fear a catastrophic outcome, as former OMB director David Stockman claims? That is extremely unlikely. There is one great source of strength in the U.S. economy, namely the energy sector. With the United States poised to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, the U.S. current account deficit is likely to settle in the 2% range, down from the 6% range during the mid-2000s. That will enhance America’s capacity to borrow overseas by reducing the risk of future dollar depreciation. The prospective improvement in America’s current account gives the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration a great deal more slack.
But it is fanciful to expect that energy alone will drive a U.S. economic boom. It’s great for North Dakota and a few other states, and it’s good for the current account balance and the U.S. dollar. We’ve already had a massive decline in natural gas prices and a massive increase in the proportion of our energy coming from natural gas, and the effect on overall economic output is small.
No magic bullet — not the Fed, not the energy boom, not the modest improvement in home prices- — is going to get the U.S. economy out of what Nobel Prize laureate Edmund Phelps calls a “structural slump.” This isn’t a new depression. It’s not even a double-dip recession. It’s just a permanent headache.
The economy is stagnating, not recovering, and Americans are hurting. Republican leaders are playing small ball against the administration over budgetary issues. Getting out of the structural slump will require radical changes. It will probably take a drastic reduction on taxes on capital income, including corporate profits, capital gains, interest, and dividends to get investment going again. Slashing the defense budget, which has been the great driver of technological advances since the Second World War, is devastatingly wrong-headed by economic as well as national security criteria. Obamacare is killing small business. The National Federation of Independent Business’ Optimism Index remains at recession lows. The biggest negatives cited by small business owners are taxes and government regulation.
The Republican Party needs to articulate the kind of broad vision for prosperity founded on free markets and American strength that we had under Reagan. Waiting for the pendulum to swing back in our direction just isn’t good enough.