September 23, 2013

Is There Hope for the Middle Class while the Monkeys are Running the Zoo?


25 Years of Going NowhereDan Wasserman, September 19, 2013.
On Saturday, the Washington Post ran the cartoon shown above (by the Boston Globe's Dan Wasserman). On Friday, the Post carried a story by Jim Tankersley titled "Jobless recoveries are here to stay, economists say, but it’s a mystery why." The author made these points:
  • The U.S. is stuck in its third consecutive "jobless recovery" stretching back to the 1990 recession.
  • Economists concluded that this pattern might well become the new American model for recessions and recoveries.
  • After an exhaustive series of tests, economists couldn't explain what's gone wrong.
Here's One Thing That's Gone Wrong
Wasserman's cartoon is worth a thousand words. The driving force in the U.S. economy has always been consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of all economic growth. But the engine that generates rising living standards and new jobs has stalled. If you want to understand today's economy, consider these Census Department figures:
  • In 1973, the average American household earned $48,557 in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2012, the typical household earned $50,017 -- an increase of only 5% after 40 years, or a measly one dollar and 18 cents every year! With such negligible growth, average wage earners can't possibly stoke the national economy.
  • At the top, things look very different. Forty years ago, a household in the 95th percentile of that distribution -- a family better off than 19 out of 20 other families -- earned $133,725. In 2012, a household at the same position earned $191,156 -- an increase of 43%.
By contrast, the greatest growth in the American economy coincided with the post-war growth in the number and earnings of middle class workers in the 1950s and '60s. The GI Bill -- undoubtedly our government's biggest-ever welfare program -- sparked that economic golden age, providing returning vets assistance for college education, home purchases, and business start-ups.

Here's Why It Won't Get Fixed: "The Monkeys Are Running the Zoo"
I know better than to expect any help from this Congress. But I was pleasantly surprised to read an op-ed piece in Friday's Post by Steve LaTourette, congressman (R-Ohio) from 1995 to 2013. He defends House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the 180± Republicans in congress who are "actively interested in participating in the legislative process." He focuses blame elsewhere:
Thirty to forty other members of the House, however, believe their only responsibility as members of Congress is to show up and vote "no." Frankly, they take such a dim view of their job that a trained monkey could do what they do. And, sadly, the situation is becoming one in which the monkeys are running the zoo. 
It is these members who are largely responsible for the dysfunction in Washington and the failure of the legislative process. They have gleefully ground to a halt the work of the people. Because of them, agreement cannot be reached on legislation once deemed too important not to pass, such as the farm bill or the transportation bill. 
These members are cheered on by interest groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, organizations that have made a lucrative business out of Washington dysfunction. 
The No On Everything caucus, exemplified by members such as Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Michelle Backmann (R-Minn.), and Tim Huelscamp (R-Kans.), has tapped into Americans' unhappiness with Washington while deepening the dysfunction that has bred such widespread contempt among voters. It's an admirable feat of political skill, in its basest sense, but it also is everything that is wrong with politics today.
Though dismayed with politics these days, I feel a flicker of hope when someone like LaTourette remains willing to work on finding solutions, instead of sitting on the sidelines, obstructing progress.

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