Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, speaking at the
World Economic Forum in Davos a few days ago, said the "critical risks"
facing the American economy this year were a worsening of Europe's
chronic sovereign debt crisis and a rise in tensions with Iran that
could stoke global oil prices.
What about jobs and wages here at home?
As the Commerce Department reported Friday, the U.S. economy grew 2.8
percent between October and December -- the fastest pace in 18 months
and the first time growth exceeded 2 percent all year. Many bigger
American companies have been reporting strong profits in recent months.
GE and Lockheed Martin closed the year with record order backlogs.
Yet the percent of working-age Americans in jobs isn't much different
than what it was three years ago. Yes, America now produces more than
it did when the recession began. But it does so with 6 million fewer
Average after-tax incomes adjusted for inflation are moving up a bit.
(They increased at an annual rate of .8 percent in the last three
months of 2011 after falling 1.9 percent in prior three-month period.
For all of 2011, incomes fell .1 percent.)
But beware averages. Shaquille O'Neal and I have an average height of
six feet. Exclude Mitt Romney's $20 million last year -- along with
everyone else securely in the top 1 percent -- and the incomes of most
Americans are continuing to slip.
Consumer spending picked up slightly in the fourth quarter mainly
because consumers drew down their savings. Obviously, this can't last.
Meanwhile, government is spending less on schools, roads, bridges,
parks, defense, and social services. Government spending at all levels
dropped at an annual rate of 4.6 percent in the last quarter -- and
that's likely to continue.
Some economists worry this drop is a drag on the economy. But it also
means fewer public goods available to all Americans regardless of
Congress still hasn't decided whether to renew the temporary payroll
tax cut and extend unemployment benefits past February. If it doesn't,
expect another 1 percent slice off GDP growth this year.
Tim Geithner is surely correct that the European debt crisis and Iran
pose risks to the American economy in 2012. But they aren't the biggest
risk. The biggest risk is right here at home -- that most Americans will
continue to languish.
All of which raises a basic question: Who or what is the economy for?
Surely not just for a few at the top, and not just big corporations and
their CEOs. Nor can the success of the economy be measured by how fast
the GDP is growing, or how high the Dow Jones Industrial Average is
rising, or whether average incomes are turning upward.
The crisis of American capitalism marks the triumph of consumers and investors over workers and citizens. And since most of us occupy all
four roles -- even though the lion's share of consuming and investing is
done by the wealthy -- the real crisis centers on the increasing
efficiency by which all of us as consumers and investors can get great
deals, and our declining capacity to be heard as workers and citizens.
Modern technologies allow us to shop in real time, often worldwide,
for the lowest prices, highest quality, and best returns. Through the
Internet and advanced software we can now get relevant information
instantaneously, compare deals, and move our money at the speed of
electronic impulses. We can buy goods over the Internet that are
delivered right to our homes. Never before in history have consumers and investors been so empowered.
Yet these great deals increasingly come at the expense of our own and
our compatriots' jobs and wages, and widening inequality. The goods we
want or the returns we seek can often be produced more efficiently
elsewhere around the world by companies offering lower pay, fewer
benefits, and inferior working conditions.