Falling Households Incomes—The Real ‘Fiscal Cliff’

Popular Economics Weekly

It is household income that is falling off a cliff. This is partly due to the busted housing bubble and subsequent Great Recession that shaved 40 percent from household wealth. But household incomes haven’t been rising as fast as inflation since the 1970s, either. So we should be worrying about the drastic decline in buying power, rather than Congress’s inability to agree on a federal budget, if we want to cure the looming ‘fiscal cliff’.

If we don’t find a way to improve average household finances, Americans could plunge into decades of slow growth and the continued deterioration in their standard of living. Why? We are a consumer society, so that 70 percent of U.S. economic growth is powered by consumer spending. That is why government has to be part of the solution.

Three-fifths of all jobs lost during the Great Recession paid middle-income wages, while those created during the economic recovery pay low wages, according to a new study by the National Employment Law Project. Both economic forces and government budget cuts are causing this deficit of good jobs, according to the study.

For instance, many of the losses in well-paying jobs came from state and local governments, which have cut 485,000 jobs since February 2010, NELP found. Many mid-wage government workers that have been laid off during the economic recovery include teachers and police officers.

There is an easy way to reverse the downward spiral in wages—begin to upgrade our aging public services. In what New York Times Nicholas Kristof has labeled A Failed Experiment, the World Economic Forum ranks American infrastructure 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4.

One would think with the ongoing drought, Tsumanis, and Hurricane Sandy that we would know how important government is to the solution of our many problems. New Jersey Governor Chris Christy certainly thought so in lauding President Obama for his help during Sandy. So the most obvious place to start is a national program to repair our crumbling infrastructure that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates needs at least $2.2 Trillion in repairs and upgrades over the next 5 years just to keep it safe.

The wealthy have always had an answer to the ongoing decrepitude of public services, said Kristof. “Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind—just join a private tennis club. I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country.”

The ASCE has launched a new series of reports that take a closer look at the economic impacts of America’s deteriorating infrastructure. These economic studies look forward to 2020 and 2040 to predict impacts on GDP, personal income, and jobs if current infrastructure investment trends continue. 

The first report was released in July 2011 and focused on surface transportation. The landmark study, Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Surface Transportation Infrastructure, found the nation’s deteriorating surface transportation infrastructure will cost the American economy more than 870,000 jobs, and suppress the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product by $897 billion by 2020. Commissioned by ASCE and conducted by the Economic Development Research Group of Boston, the report shows that the nation is facing a funding gap of about $94 billion a year compared with our current spending levels.

In fact Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz asserts in a recent Project Syndicate blog that “Spending, especially on investments in education, technology, and infrastructure, can actually lead to lower long-term deficits.”

Most of the federal ‘fiscal cliff’ was created by borrowing to finance serial tax cuts and increased military spending that benefited the few at the expense of the many, instead of shoring up social security and Medicare reserves, as Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill advocated.

In fact, those tax revenues were diverted to the real ‘takers’, the wealthiest Wall Street financiers and corporate CEOs who have managed to capture most of the created wealth over the last decades. Just in 2009, it’s well documented that 93 percent of the income increase went to the top 1 percent of income earners through lower dividend and capital gains taxes, as well as record corporate profits.

But that means taking political power back from the elites who would rather starve government programs that could boost middle class incomes and consumers, asserts Chrystia Freeland in Plutocrats, The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Plutocrats are putting the wealth accumulated from deregulation of the U.S. economy into developing the middle classes of developing countries such as India, China, and Brazil, rather than the U.S.

Need we say more? Should we continue to allow the private good to trump public good? Not unless we enjoy reverting back to conditions like those in the developing world.

Harlan Green © 2012

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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