Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Lyndon Johnson, Yes. William Jennings Bryan, No.

Paul Krugman:

The Big Disconnect - New York Times: There are still some pundits out there lecturing people about how great the economy is. But most analysts seem to finally realize that Americans have good reasons to be unhappy with the state of the economy: although G.D.P. growth has been pretty good for the last few years, most workers have seen their wages lag behind inflation and their benefits deteriorate.... [T]he disconnect didn't begin with Mr. Bush, and it won't end with him, unless we have a major change in policies.... The real wage of nonsupervisory workers reached a peak in the early 1970's, at the end of the postwar boom. Since then workers have sometimes gained ground, sometimes lost it, but they have never earned as much per hour as they did in 1973. Meanwhile, the decline of employer benefits began in the Reagan years.... The most crucial benefit, employment-based health insurance, has been in rapid decline since 2000.

Ordinary American workers seem to understand the long-term disconnect between economic growth and their own fortunes better than most political analysts.... The [Pew] center finds that workers perceive a long-term downward trend in their economic status. A majority say that it's harder to earn a decent living than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and a plurality say that job benefits are worse too....

Workers' concern about worsening benefits is new... the health care crisis is back, both because medical costs are rising rapidly and because we're living in an increasingly Wal-Martized economy, in which even big, highly profitable employers offer minimal benefits. Employment-based insurance began a steep decline with the 2001 recession, and the decline has continued in spite of economic recovery....

Why have workers done so badly in a rich nation that keeps getting richer? That's a matter of dispute, although I believe there's a large political component: what we see today is the result of a quarter-century of policies that have systematically reduced workers' bargaining power. The important question now, however, is whether we're finally going to try to do something about the big disconnect. Wages may be difficult to raise, but we won't know until we try. And as for declining benefits -- well, every other advanced country manages to provide everyone with health insurance, while spending less on health care than we do.

The big disconnect, in other words, provides as good an argument as you could possibly want for a smart, bold populism. All we need now are some smart, bold populist politicians.

I'm enough of a believer in CPI bias to want to say "real compensation for male nonsupervisory workers has stagnated since 1973"--I think it has grown, but only very slowly, and much less rapidly than productivity.

On the other hand, I'm enough of a touchy-feey sociology-lover to believe that a good chunk of the utility the rich derive from their conspicuous consumption is transferred to them from the poor: the happiness America's working poor and middle class derive from the compensation distribution--given their compensation, the compensation of the rich, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous--seems to me to be certainly less than that of their counterparts back in 1973.

The easiest and most important thing the government can do to neutralize the adverse consequences of rising inequality is to make the tax system more progressive, not less. A reality-based government would react to growing pretax inequality by taxing the rich more, and subsidizing the poor more (through policies like the EITC) as well.

But when I read Paul's call for "smart, bold populism," I am reminded of earlier calls a couple of decades ago by Milton Friedman, Marty Feldstein, and their ilk for smart, bold conservatism or smart, bold libertarianism. But they did not get what they ordered: on the economic policy front the policies of Reagan and of Bush II have been a horrible botch. What populist policies that we can think of would be smart? And how can we make our high politicians allergic to populist policies that are stupid?

Lyndon Johnson, yes. William Jennings Bryan, no.

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