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The Biggest Risk to the Economy in 2012, and What's the Economy For Anyway?

By       Message Robert B. Reich     Permalink
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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.

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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 workers.

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.)

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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 income.

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.

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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.

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http://robertreich.org/

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.


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