The $3 Trillion Opportunity for 2022

August 16, 2012

There's more to life than economics, but almost nothing matters more to more people than the rate of long-term economic growth. It completely changes the life possibilities for individuals and families and determines the prospects of nations. It also happens to be the central factor in governmental budgets.

We've been saying for the last few years that growth is our biggest problem -- but also our biggest opportunity. Faster growth would not only put Americans back to work but also help resolve budget impasses and assist in the long-overdue transformations of our entitlement programs. The current recovery, however, is worse than mediocre. It is dangerously feeble. With every passing day, we fall further behind. Investments aren't made. Risks aren't taken. Business ideas are shelved. Joblessness persists, and millions of Americans drop out of the labor force altogether. Continued stagnation would of course exacerbate an already dire long-term unemployment problem. It would also, however, turn America's unattractive habitual overspending into a possible catastrophe of debt. 

John Cochrane of the University of Chicago shows, in the chart below, just how far we've slipped from our historical growth path. The red line is the 1965-2007 trend line growth of 3.07%, and the thin black line shows the recession and weak recovery. 

Recessions are of course downward deviations from a trend line of growth. Trendlines, however, include recessions, and recoveries thus usually exhibit faster-than-trend growth that catches up to trend. To be sure, trends may not continue forever. Historical performance, as they say, is not a guarantee of future results. Perhaps structural factors in the U.S. and world economies have lowered our "potential" growth rate. This possibility is shown in the blue "CBO Potential" line, which depicts the "new normal" of diminished expectations. Yet the current recovery cannot even catch up to this anemic trend line, which supposedly reflects the downgraded potential of the U.S. economy. 

Here is another way to visualize today's stagnation, from Scott Grannis:




Economies are built on expectations. If the "new normal" of 2.35% growth is correct, then we've got problems. All our individual, family, business, and government plans will have to downshift. If growth is even lower than that, tomorrow's problems will tower over today's. If, on the other hand, we can reignite the American growth engine, then we've got a shot to not only reverse today's decline but also to open the to door to a new era of renewed optimism and, yes, rising expectations.

Faster compounding growth over time makes all the difference. One new paper shows how, with a fundamentally new policy direction on taxes and regulation, real GDP in the U.S. could be "between $2.1 and $3.1 trillion higher in 2022 than it would be under a continuation of current slow growth." Think of that -- an American economy perhaps trillions of dollars larger in a single year a decade from now, with better pro-growth policies. That's a lot of jobs, a lot of higher incomes, a lot of new businesses, and -- whether your preference is more or less government spending -- much healthier government budgets . . . summed up in one last chart.