The election is over, and now our newly elected (and re-elected) leaders face the task of governing. Clearly, economic issues were front and center during the political campaign, so it’s understandable that voters will be expecting action on pocketbook issues.
But what actions can our new leaders take? Are there any quick “silver bullets” to make things better, or do economic questions have, at best, only long-run answers? Here’s an evaluation facing both our leaders in Washington and Raleigh.
The Recession: The recession is the most pressing economic problem facing the nation and North Carolina. Hastening the end of the recession is really something only Washington can attempt because recessions, by definition, are nationwide — and this one is really worldwide.
The federal government already has done much. Congress passed one “stimulus” package, and another is likely on the way. The Federal Reserve also has lowered interest rates, bought bad debt, and is printing more money. However, the impacts of these actions take time, and they also pose risks. More federal spending requires more borrowing, which must be repaid from future income. Printing more money could spark higher inflation in a year or two. Most economists think that, regardless of what else is done, the recession likely will last until at least mid-2009.
Education: Education is the key to our economic future. In today’s technological, globalized economy, countries, states, and regions with well-trained, productive workforces will be competitive and prosperous.
Although federal involvement has increased in recent years, state and local governments long have been the primary movers in education, and this likely will continue in the future.
The issues are different for K-12 and higher education. For K-12, the big question is, what works? What will it take to improve educational outcomes for more students? Is it better teacher pay, better teacher training, linking student performance to teacher pay, more technology, smaller class sizes, more specific education, more general education, more parental involvement, or all of the above? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t obvious, which makes the job all the harder when financial resources are limited, as they always are.
For higher education, the question isn’t what works, but instead, who pays? We have the best universities and colleges in the world. North Carolina also has supported a higher percentage of the costs of public universities and colleges than most other states. But as more college-aged individuals attend universities and colleges in the future, how will their expenses be financed? What is the “fair” or “correct” share to be paid by the student and by the public?
Energy: People want alternatives to fossil-based fuels both for environmental and national-security reasons, but getting there is complicated, and there are many questions. What alternatives are technically feasible, and who should be the leader in finding them: the government or the private sector? If the alternatives aren’t yet economically feasible — that is, their costs exceed their revenues — what’s the best way to make them profitable? Should the alternatives be subsidized, or should the fossil-based fuels be taxed? Can states such as North Carolina carve out a profitable, self-sustaining future in alternative energy production, or are the risks and uncertainties at this time too great?
Health Care: Health care might be the thorniest long-standing economic issue of our day. There are two parts to the health care problem: coverage and cost. What can we do to make sure everyone is covered by health insurance, and what can we do to arrest the steep climb in health-care costs?
Possible answers are all over the board. Some prefer the federal government simply take over (nationalize) the entire health-care system and finance it from general tax revenues. Others prefer a less expansive approach, with maybe the federal government requiring employers to provide health insurance, but with government coverage as a backup. Still others want to go in the opposite direction — less government involvement by reducing mandates and requirements with the goal of increasing the supply of basic, lower-priced health insurance.
Entitlements: Unfortunately, the two big “entitlement” programs, Social Security and Medicare, were little discussed during the political campaign. Yet they are still looming as a growing, and potentially crippling, part of the federal budget. The sooner we address them, the better. Yet it won’t be easy because the programs assist perhaps our most cherished generation: senior citizens.
Wow! I’m tired just thinking of the challenges associated with these issues. Will our new leaders be able to find any easy answers? Stay tuned.
Dr. Michael L. Walden is a William Neal Reynolds distinguished professor at North Carolina State University.