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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

U.S. Economic Present

Here's an interesting perspective from our favorite magazine, the Economist:
Waiting for the job recovery might be a good time to take a broader measure of the material well-being of Americans. Their condition is widely held to be perilous. The economy, it is said, is being "hollowed out" by international competition and the connivance of business and political elites, creating "two Americas", one rich, one poor. Median income of American households, commentators often say, has been stagnant, though census figures give a rise of one-fifth since 1980. Lou Dobbs, on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight", is just one media fabulist who makes his living by claiming that, as America is being "exported", so the well-being of middle Americans is in a parlous state.

It is a good story, but false on many levels. For a start, this slow growth in median income overlaps with a scale of immigration into America outpacing all immigration in the rest of the world put together. Many immigrants have come precisely to take up the lowest-paid jobs. As a result, in the 20 years to 1999 some 5m immigrant households were added to those defined as below the poverty level. Yet among native-born Americans, poverty rates have declined steadily since the 1960s. In the case of black families, median incomes have recently been rising at twice the pace for the country as a whole.

Strip out immigrants, and the picture of stagnant median incomes vanishes. Indeed, for the nine-tenths of the population that is native-born, middle-income trends continue their improvement of the 1950s and 1960s. For these people, inequality is not rising, but falling. Gregg Easterbrook cheekily points out in his excellent recent book, "The Progress Paradox" (Random House), that if left-leaning Americans seriously want better statistics about middle-income gains, then they should simply close their borders.

Mr Easterbrook points to something else about the figures for median household income. A quarter-century ago a typical household had three members. Today, it has just 2.6 members. Simply by this effect, median households have seen their real incomes rise by a half.

Another measure of improved well-being is increased access to jobs. Between 1980 and 2002 Americans in work rose by over 40%, a far brisker pace than the 26% growth in the population. Some three-quarters of the adult population are now in work, close to a record and some ten percentage points higher than in Europe.

One reason is more teenagers in work: over the same period, teenage employment grew by nearly two-thirds. As Andrew Hacker points out in the New York Review of Books, teenagers are a significant source of low-paid labour in supermarkets, shopping malls and fast-food franchises. Exploitative? Hardly, since it helps them buy cars and independence.

Yet the chief reason for higher participation is more women in work, notably married women. Very roughly, in the past half-century the average weekly hours worked by married women have tripled, while hours worked by men and single women have stayed about constant. The usual reason given is that married women have had to work so that families can make ends meet. A recent study* by three economists, Larry Jones, Rodolfo Manuelli and Ellen McGrattan, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, punctures that notion. They find that the tripling of married women's hours can be explained entirely by a gender wage-gap that has narrowed. That is, a smaller pay differential between men and women gives married women sufficient incentive to invest in education and careers.

Of course, many American households struggle to survive on minimum-wage jobs with employers who do them few favours. We will look at low-paid work in a future week. What this piece attempts to argue is that the middle is far from being hollowed out. As Mr Easterbrook emphasises, most Americans have at least two cars and their own house, and they send their children to college. Certainly a bigger share of household income is being spent on things that did not feature 50 years ago, such as high-tech health care. But it has brought the benefit of a longer and better life, and not just for the old: since 1980, infant mortality has fallen by 45%.

At the end of last year, America's household wealth, at $44 trillion, passed the previous peak set in early 2000...
Compare this last household wealth number with the "staggering $45 trillion" of "American government's future obligations" that another Economist article that Jim links to worries about. Including the assets, the balance sheet doesn't look so bad, does it? Especially since the vast majority of those liabilities are Social Security and Medicare entitlements which can become un-entitled if we so choose (or if not un-entitled because of morality qualms, then particularly heavily taxed, or, in other words, means tested).

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