Here’s why the improved economy means so little

The Thinker by Rodin

The stock market is reaching record highs again, which make us moneyed people woozy. I’m modestly including myself here although I’m not that well moneyed. But I am retired on a nice pension with plenty of assets to draw on should things go south. The Dow Jones Industrial Average passed 27,000 yesterday and closed for the week at 27,322. Not bad for an index that dropped to 6547 on March 6, 2009, a little over ten years ago.

Happy days are here again? It might help to wonder why the market indexes are so high. The most recent surges are almost surely due to the Fed’s strong hinting that it’s going to reduce interest rates soon. Maybe Donald Trump’s bullying is getting to the Fed, but much more likely the Fed has read the tealeaves and suspects a recession is getting started and is trying to prevent one. And it’s enough to calm Wall Street and make them think happy days will keep on coming.

You don’t have to look hard though to find worrying signs: tariffs are slowing trade, commodity prices are dropping, and the percentage of people in the workforce keeps dropping. This is artificially keeping the unemployment statistics low. Consumers are taking on the same levels of record debt they took on before the Great Recession and Republicans have managed to repeal many of the key safeguards put in place to keep it from happening again. Student loans passed the $1T mark, sucking money from these former students’ wallets that they can’t spend on actual goods and services like houses. Perhaps in response, mortgage rates are dropping again, which is actually not a good sign. Banks are trying to entice people to buy houses, so the lower the rates go the harder time they are having finding people who can afford to take out a mortgage.

Still, many of us including me have been expecting calamity and have been wondering why we have been proven wrong. There are a few positive signs. With unemployment low, workers can bargain for higher wages and it’s working, sort of. They are beating the cost of living by .5 to 1% annually. That doesn’t translate into a whole lot of money, but it beats the decades of wage stagnation we’ve been experiencing. This is hardly the end of wage stagnation, but it is at least a hopeful sign.

Donald Trump is wondering why he isn’t getting more traction on the economy. That’s actually his one bright spot, with a slim majority approving of his handling of it, while his overall approval ratings seem mired in the low 40s. 40% of Americans still cannot find $500 to draw from in an emergency. It could be they are all inept at financial management, which is what Republicans would like you to believe.

The real reasons are much simpler. Much of today’s work requires people with fewer valuable skills, which mean they can’t command as much in wages. That’s why they are working two or three jobs to pay the bills. Even this is not enough, which is the real reason they can’t find $500 and are living paycheck to paycheck.

But there’s one other important factor that is often overlooked. Certain things cost a lot more than they used to (housing is a prime example) and there are other things that cost dramatically more than they used to. The most likely reason you will get thrown into poverty is if you need more medical care than you can afford. The Affordable Care Act was a good first step, but it wasn’t nearly affordable enough, despite the subsidies. You still needed enough income to pay for the bronze plans. And since they came with high deductibles, they mostly only bought catastrophic protection. All those deductibles, copayments and coinsurance payments cost a heap of money and all of it needs to be in the form of disposable cash, which for the most part these people don’t have. They still can’t afford to be sick. Of course, a lot of states won’t offer health care under Medicaid to these people, which they probably could afford if it were offered because copays are minimal when they exist at all. Medical price inflation is still insane and there are fewer mechanisms to check it. The magic of the free market has proven largely illusory with health care costs.

It’s no wonder then that surveys show that for most voters it’s not how well the economy is doing that matters, but how well their economy is doing — and it’s not going that great. The good news is that there is work out there for pretty much anyone who wants it. The bad news is that without a lot of high-paying skills, at best you can barely get by on the wages you are earning. Voters have figured out that health insurance really matters, and it’s their number one concern now. Those who had Obamacare realized that at least for a while it cushioned financial shocks. But they also need health care because they can get sick and simply can’t afford to get well. There are people driving hundreds of miles to Canada regularly just to buy insulin at affordable prices.

While it’s true that Donald Trump is widely seen as unlikeable and unpresidential, what voters are really understanding is that government needs to actually govern, and so little of it is happening. A president can be thrown out after four years, which is likely to happen to Trump. But we need a Congress that compromises in the public interest and tackles real problems like immigration reform and the lack of affordable health insurance ten years after Obamacare.

It may be a long wait. The Supreme Court recently decided states were perfectly free to gerrymander based on political party. In short, it’s allowing states to stay in the business of incumbent protection, making it harder and harder for people to actually have a true republican form of government. With our courts now largely in conservative hands, it’s hard to see how this can change.

Which is why Bernie Sanders’ call for a political revolution makes a whole lot of sense. Achieving it without wholesale insurrection though looks incredibly improbable.

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