We can do better. With strains from the financial crisis receding and huge investment possible in energy, housing and reshored manufacturing, the United States faces a moment of opportunity unlike any in a long time. The economy could soon enter a virtuous cycle of confidence, growth and deficit reduction, much like it did in the 1990s. But this will require moving the national economic debate beyond its near-total preoccupation with federal budget restraint.
Yes, fiscal restraint is necessary in the medium term to contain financial risks. But unlike in the 1990s, when reduced deficits stimulated investment by bringing down capital costs, fiscal restraint cannot be relied on to provide stimulus now when long-term Treasurys yield less than 2 percent.
A broader growth-centered agenda is needed to propel the economy to its “escape velocity.”
First, as the president has recognized, the budget cuts implicit in the sequester scheduled to begin in March should not be reduced but spread over time. The economy is already taking a significant hit from increases in payroll taxes. Sudden across-the-board slashing of military and civilian spending will hurt the economy and seriously damage military readiness.
Second, the president and Congress should fix a firm year-end deadline to address the international aspects of corporate tax reform. We are in the worst of all worlds: U.S. companies have nearly $2 trillion in cash sitting abroad because of tax burdens on bringing it home and the perception that relief may be on the way. Ideally, the international tax system should be reformed in a way that is revenue-neutral but increases the attractiveness of bringing foreign profits home. This would be accomplished by replacing the current high rate of tax levied only on repatriated profits with a much lower tax levied on all global profits. If such reform is not going to happen, this should be clarified so business does not keep planning for an amnesty that will not come.
Third, no American, regardless of his or her ideology, should be satisfied with the way the nation’s housing finance system is working. After a period when cheap mortgages were too available, the pendulum has swung too far; a lack of finance is holding the economy back. The clearest evidence is the growing number of lower- and middle-income families paying rents to the private-equity firms that own their homes at rates far above what a mortgage would cost.