Sep 23rd 2023

Down on the Biden Economy

by James K. Galbraith

 

James K. Galbraith is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His father, John Kenneth Galbraith, served as United States Ambassador to India under President John F. Kennedy. 

 

 

AUSTIN – In a recent CNN interviewPaul Krugman of The New York Times finds it hard to understand why ordinary American voters do not share his euphoric view of US President Joe Biden’s goldilocks economy – which appears to be neither hot nor cold. Inflation is falling, unemployment remains low, the economy is growing, and stock-market valuations are high. So why, Krugman asks, do voters give Biden’s economy a lousy 36% approval rating?

Journalist Glenn Greenwald sees class bias in Krugman’s wonderment: as though Krugman were just another pampered rentier with ample cash, real estate, stocks, and bonds. But this is most unfair. Though I have not been to Krugman’s home, I have seen his ultra-modest office at the City University of New York. He’s certainly done well, but I suspect his plebeian tastes have changed little since his junior faculty days at Yale, when I was a graduate student there.

No, Krugman’s problem is not too much money. It’s the obsolescence of his ideas. He and I came of age, professionally, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Republicans, gunning for Carter, availed themselves of the “misery index,” a measure comprising the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates in a given month or year. As a polemical device, the index was devastating, especially in 1980, when Carter’s credit controls caused a short recession, just after the Iranian Revolution’s shock to oil prices. Ronald Reagan rode to the presidency on that horse.

Today, with inflation and unemployment both running between 3% and 4%, the misery index is low. Back in the 1970s, those in power would have been thrilled. Mainstream economists would have been perplexed, and that hasn’t changed. They were in thrall to something called the Phillips curve; or worse, the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. To this day, some of them still can’t figure out why low unemployment doesn’t cause high inflation. That is why they marvel when the misery index is low – as Krugman does today.

The misery index was never more than a headline number. Dig beneath the surface, and one finds that its two components are not as relevant to ordinary people as the pundits appear to think. Even when the unemployment rate is relatively high, it has never – apart from the Great Depression or the pandemic shock – directly affected more than a small share of the workforce at any given time. People don’t like recessions, but even in bad times, most people keep their jobs.

Unlike unemployment, inflation does affect everyone. But what matters to working people is not the monthly or yearly price change taken alone. What matters is the effect on purchasing power and living standards over time. Whether these are rising or falling depends on the relationship of prices to wages. When wage growth exceeds price increases, times are generally good. When it doesn’t, they aren’t.

It is here that Biden has a problem. During his presidency, living standards have not risen. From early 2021 to mid-2023, prices have increased more than wages, implying that real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages and real weekly earnings have fallen, on average. Not by much, but they have fallen. Worse, the average figure probably masks a larger fall, in real terms, for families that started out below the average. And given how income distributions work, there are always many more families earning less than the average than there are who earn more.

American households used to be able to offset stagnant real earnings by adding workers and jobs per household. Although those extra jobs usually were not very good, the process of extending work to women and young people helped families maintain their living standards despite the vast decline in high-wage manufacturing jobs. That was true, to a large degree, in the late 1980s and in the 1990s when many women, young people, and minorities entered the workforce.

But this process has petered out. Though the employment-to-population ratio is up a bit since early 2021, it is still below where it was in 2019. Meanwhile, with the end of pandemic relief policies, the US savings rate has dropped from a robust 20.4% of earnings in early 2021 to an anemic 3.5%. Krugman sees that number as an indication that people are spending confidently, but it is much more likely a sign of stress.

After all, stress is exactly what US Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and his colleagues want to see. It is why they raised interest rates – to slow growth, cause unemployment, and increase job insecurity. They think that stress will make American workers tame and compliant. But, of course, it might instead make them angry. Just look at the United Auto Workers: Demanding pay hikes sufficient to make up for inflation and then some, they have just gone on strike.

No wonder Biden’s economic approval rating is so low. It will likely remain there until American voters start to see better results in their own pockets. Most people are not moved by pundits babbling about how great things are. Krugman and cable news are not going to change people’s perceptions, especially if they suspect – rightly – that many much richer Americans are doing much better than they are.

In this context, and with another election coming up, it seems unwise to tell American workers that they have never had it so good. In fact, as a political matter, such arguments have never worked. Perhaps Krugman, who went to work for Reagan back in 1983, has forgotten the devastating question that his old boss posed during a 1980 debate against Carter: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

That is what millions of US voters will be asking themselves in 2024.

 

James K. Galbraith, Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, is a former executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2023

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "Shocks are here to stay, and our task is not to predict the next one – although someone always does – but to sharpen our focus on resilience. Staying the course of politically mandated policies while minimizing the inevitable dislocations is easier said than done. But that is no excuse to fall for the myth of being victimized by the unprecedented."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACTS: "A new world is indeed emerging. It will be characterized not only by more interdependencies, but also by more insecurity, danger, and war. Stability in international relations will become a foreign concept from a bygone age – one that we did not fully appreciate until it was gone."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion."
Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."