Perrspectives - Bringing light to Darkness

Bush League Economy

December 8, 2005

Nothing, apparently not even the growing opposition to the war in Iraq, frustrates President Bush and the Republican Party more than Americans' consistently negative view of the economy.
Despite 215,000 new jobs in November, stout 4.3% Q3 GDP growth and a whopping 4.7% gain in productivity, only 37% of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the economy. As one Wall Street analyst moaned on the RNC blog, "No matter what happens, no matter what data are released, no matter which way markets move, a pall of pessimism hangs over the economy."
And for good reason. Because right now, the American people aren't focused on economic growth; they're concerned about economic insecurity. Call it the Perrspectives Insecurity Index.
The public's dismal perception of the state of the American economy is not for want of trying from the Bush administration. A White House web site animation selectively cites data to proclaim that "President Bush's actions are moving our economy forward", "30 straight months of job gains", "over 4.4 million news jobs created since May 2003", and "unemployment rates are below the averages of the 70's, 80's and 90's." As President Bush claimed during a photo-op at a John Deere plant in North Carolina on Monday, "this economy of ours is on the move."

Leave aside for now the 22 million jobs created during the Clinton years or that unemployment declined every year Bill Clinton was in the White House. In 2005, large swaths of the American people are gripped by insecurity, a nagging fear that the quality of life will diminish, if not for themselves, then for their neighbors. During the time of President Bush, the belief in a central tenet of the American Dream that each generation will live better than its parents is in jeopardy.
This sum of all fears is a 21st century version of the 1970's "misery index", which combined hitherto unprecedented inflation and unemployment rates to quantify economic suffering. Today, a much broader range of factors impact how Americans feel about their economic prospects. Call it the Insecurity Index, combining data and trends for health insurance, pension coverage, personal debt, energy costs, mass layoffs, and most of all, wages:

  • Health Insurance. The Census Bureau reports that 46 million Americans, almost 16% of the population, were without health insurance by 2004. That is a staggering increase from 40 million (14.2%) in 2000 and 32 million (13%) back in 1987, when the Bureau began tracking coverage. Meanwhile, employer health care costs are forecast to jump another 10% in 2006, offset in part only by shifting expenses to workers. With companies like General Motors looking to massively cut employee health care costs, the picture isn't getting any rosier.
  • Energy. As with health care, American consumers confront the rising cost of energy almost every day. And while gas prices have dropped to an average of $2.13 a gallon from September's post-Katrina high of $3.01, that's still sticker shock compared to 2003's low of $1.56. Meanwhile, home heating oil and natural gas prices are expected to leap this winter by as much 31% and 71%, respectively.
  • Personal Debt. Americans' personal debt, excluding mortgages, has exploded to $2.2 trillion, up from $1 trillion in 1994, to reach $9,000 per household. With their mortgage burden included, Americans owe $9 trillion. By 2008, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, Americans' household debt will reach 160% of their disposable income.
  • Income. While personal debt was exploding, median household income actually declined over the last five years, from roughly $46,000 in 2000 to $44,389 in 2004. And from 2003 to 2004, only the top 5% of households saw their incomes increase.
  • Mass Layoffs. While the unemployment rate remained steady as the economy created its 215,000 jobs, high-profile mass layoff announcements such as the 30,000 at General Motors alter perceptions of that progress.
  • Wages. The picture for wages is the grimmest of them all. While the White House trumpeted the Q3 productivity gains, there was little discussion of the 1.4% decline in real hourly compensation. And while pay for non-supervisory workers barely budged in 2004 to $27,500, the CEO of a major American company earned on average $9.84 million (a 12% increase over 2003). It's just the latest chapter in a dismal story on worker wages, wages that have been stagnant for three decades and declining for men.

In a nutshell, Americans are pessimistic about the economy because they should be. Record home ownership rates do not offset stagnant wages and mounting personal debt. Two hundred thousand new jobs are not enough for a growing American population in which only the fortunate few are experiencing rising incomes - or lower taxes. At home and at the pump, Americans feel the pinch of rising energy prices. And in the doctor's office, they face the prospect of economic ruin.
The result of Americans' ongoing economic insecurity will be more reflexive whining from the President and his conservative allies. As Jack Kemp said Monday, "In more than three decades of political involvement, I've never witnessed such pessimism, gloom and doom over the nation's economy emanating from people who should know better."
The American people, that is.
UPDATE: Gene Sperling offers a devastating critique of Bush's economic performance over at ThinkProgress. Our respective pieces to the contrary, the New York Times reports that Bush's approval numbers on the economy crept up in the last month from a miserable 34% to a merely bad 38%.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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