Monday, November 03, 2008

The Myth of the Spendthrift American

Robert Reich slaps a bad idea across the snout and sends it whence it came:

Post Meltdown Mythologies: Americans Have Been Living Beyond Their Means
What brought on the economic meltdown of 2008? Besides the bursting of the housing bubble, Wall Street's malfeasance and non-feasance, and Washington's massive failure to oversee Wall Street, fingers are also being pointed at average Americans. Some of them took on mortgages they couldn't afford, of course, but we're also hearing a more basic theme that goes something like this: For too long, Americans have been living beyond our means. We went too deeply into debt. And now we're paying the inevitable price.

.....But this story leaves out one very important fact. Since the year 2000, median family income has been dropping, adjusted for inflation. One of the main reasons the typical family has taken on more debt has been to maintain its living standards in the face of these declining real incomes.

.....The "living beyond our means" argument suggests that the answer over the long term is for American families to become more responsible and not spend more than they earn. Well, that may be necessary but it's hardly sufficient.

The real answer over the long term is to restore middle-class earnings so families don't have to go deep into debt to maintain what was a middle-class standard of living. And that requires, among other things, affordable health insurance, tax credits for college tuition, good schools, and an energy policy that's less dependent on oil, the price of which is going to continue to rise as demand soars in China, India, and elsewhere.

In other words, the way to make sure Americans don't live beyond their means is to give them back the means.

The hollowing out of the American middle class had the perverse effect of simultaneously holding down wages and interest rates. Jobs are outsourced to China, driving down demand for American Labor (and thus the price). China sends many of those dollars back to the US (to raise the price of the dollar versus the Yuan) and as a side effect lowering long term rates. For the worker it's rather like being robbed and then offered a low interest loan from your own wallet by the mugger.

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