Growing from the middle out: the US economy in Obama’s second term

The US president needs to focus not just on employment per se but on creating good jobs.

The US economy has made a remarkable turnaround since 2008, moving from losing 800,000 jobs per month in the winter of 2009, to adding over 150,000 jobs per month over a two-year period. This shift from massive job losses to steady job gains occurred because of the decisive actions of policymakers who implemented a combination of monetary and fiscal policies in 2008 and 2009.

But while the economy has been in recovery since June 2009, the level of output continues to be significantly below potential, and as a result unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, remains unacceptably high. In his campaign, Obama made the case that the economy "grows from the middle out". Now, as president, he gets to work with Congress anew to realise that vision.

While the economics are fairly clear – and leading economists tend to be in broad agreement about this agenda – the politics are much more complex. The Democrats made significant victories in November’s election, keeping the presidency and increasing their seats in the Senate; however, the election also put Republicans in control of the US House of Representatives for the next two years.

It’s worth noting that while many of the policies implemented in response to the recession had a history of bipartisan support, Washington’s highly polarised political environment has meant that support for these efforts is now almost exclusively among Democrats. If he wants to see stronger improvements in the labour market, Obama will have to spend the next two years mitigating this gridlock and finding common ground.

Looking beyond the immediate problem of the fiscal cliff, Republican leaders in the House are unlikely to have any appetite for expansionary fiscal policy. Yet the president made the argument during the campaign that we ‘grow from the middle out’ – he now has to make this concept real, and lay out the specific policies that will accomplish this goal. He needs to focus not just on employment per se but on creating good jobs, with decent pay and benefits, and on the economic wellbeing of families, ensuring that every job is a good, pro-family job, and that families have the support they need.

Nearly half of all US workers do not have the right to take a sick day when they or a family member is ill, which creates enormous stress and anxiety for families. The typical US family paying for childcare spends about 13 per cent of their total family income on that care; families that need to pay for elderly care find that can be very expensive as well. Increasing funding for childcare and home health aids and other supports so that ageing Americans can live independently would not only help to support employment but would, in effect, boost the incomes of families who struggle to afford care. Similarly, focusing on policies that allow workers to balance work and family would show that the Obama administration truly understands what it means for families now that women are more typically than not also a family breadwinner.

While these issues are not currently at the top of the agenda, the president could begin to use the power of the bully pulpit to focus on increasing the net income of families, alongside policies to boost job creation and reduce unemployment, as this is the first step towards raising living standards more generally. These issues are ones that resonate especially strongly with women and Latino voters, although surveys show that the agenda around work and family resonates with conservative voters as well.

Another way to make real the idea of middle-out economics is to focus attention on America’s capacity to be a global leader in innovation and production. Over his first term, Obama put manufacturing and boosting exports at the top of his agenda, and the fact that he was unwilling to allow the US auto industry to die was a key component of his re-election campaign. Rebuilding US manufacturing should remain a key plank of our national investment strategy, and this includes making sure that any corporate tax reform follows the agenda that the president has already laid out, discouraging offshoring, encouraging domestic production, and stopping tax advantages for the use of debt over equity.

Critical to this strategy is tapping into the foundation laid by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in green technologies, such as through the production of components for solar and wind power generation as well as innovations in battery and other technologies. While there are certainly political hurdles, the president can make the compelling argument that these investments will improve US economic competitiveness and grow the economy over the long term, which resonates with the public. Furthermore, the administration could pursue a competitive dollar strategy, which would make US exports more affordable and would not necessarily require congressional action.

With President Obama winning a second term, he has a mandate to build on the successful policies of the first term. Putting the middle class at the core of what makes the economy grow, as he did during the campaign, would be a good place to start. Americans re-elected Obama because they believe he will do a better job bringing them a strong economy and – in no small part – because he recognises that a strong economy starts with them.

Heather Boushey is a visiting fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC. A longer version of this article appears in the latest edition of IPPR’s journal Juncture.

Barack Obama delivers a speech on the economy at the Daimler Detroit Diesel engine plant. Photograph: Getty Images.

Heather Boushey is a Visiting Fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC

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The economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear