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Why Recession and Unemployment Will Continue July 13, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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In most of the discussions of recessions, stimulus, bailouts etc. the real reason why our economy flounders is seldom mentioned. But Robert Reich hits the nail on the head today.

Missing from almost all discussion of America’s dizzying rate of unemployment is the brute fact that hourly wages of people with jobs have been dropping, adjusted for inflation. Average weekly earnings rose a bit this spring only because the typical worker put in more hours, but June’s decline in average hours pushed weekly paychecks down at an annualized rate of 4.5 percent.

In other words, Americans are keeping their jobs or finding new ones only by accepting lower wages.

Meanwhile, a much smaller group of Americans’ earnings are back in the stratosphere: Wall Street traders and executives, hedge-fund and private-equity fund managers, and top corporate executives. As hiring has picked up on the Street, fat salaries are reappearing. Richard Stein, president of Global Sage, an executive search firm, tells the New York Times corporate clients have offered compensation packages of more than $1 million annually to a dozen candidates in just the last few weeks.

We’re back to the same ominous trend as before the Great Recession: a larger and larger share of total income going to the very top while the vast middle class continues to lose ground.

And as long as this trend continues, we can’t get out of the shadow of the Great Recession. When most of the gains from economic growth go to a small sliver of Americans at the top, the rest don’t have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing.

As Reich points out, this is not a new phenomenon.

America’s median wage, adjusted for inflation, has barely budged for decades. Between 2000 and 2007 it actually dropped. Under these circumstances the only way the middle class could boost its purchasing power was to borrow, as it did with gusto. As housing prices rose, Americans turned their homes into ATMs. But such borrowing has its limits. When the debt bubble finally burst, vast numbers of people couldn’t pay their bills, and banks couldn’t collect.

Each of America’s two biggest economic downturns over the last century has followed the same pattern. Consider: in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America’s total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928–with 23.5 percent of the total.

These facts were papered over by Obama’s stimulus plan that dumped a lot of cash into the economy to prevent an utter catastrophe. But as the effects of that stimulus wanes, reality will set in although I suspect much of the public and the media will not acknowledge it. If we don’t find a way to shift more money to the middle class we will face permanently high unemployment, increasing poverty, and continuing decline in our living standards.

That of course will hurt global corporations as well since demand for their products will be sluggish.  But I’m sure they will find a way to blame liberals.

Reich ends his piece on a note of optimism.

When they understand where this is heading, powerful interests that have so far resisted fundamental reform may come to see that the alternative is far worse.

But this is Tuesday, not my optimistic day.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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