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Happy Days

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Why all the gloom? asks Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. "Aside from the transitory effects of the current turmoil," things are getting better every day!

His evidence?

"In the second quarter [of 2008], the economy grew at a brisk 3.3 percent rate." Of course, that's when people were spending the $600 and $1200 stimulus checks they were getting from the government.

"Everywhere you look, you see Americans shopping and buying." Just ignore those news stories of people scrimping and saving (it was a regular feature in the Sun-Times for a while.)

"Vast expanses of land...now provide a home for shopping centers that go on forever." Impressive, yes, but in March the Tribune reported that "the signs that smaller retailers are struggling are unavoidable at malls across America: 'Going out of business' sales...." ("'Economic Darwinism' hits malls," 3-7-08).

"If their incomes are steadily falling, how do Americans cart home so much stuff?" Well, credit cards. Americans now owe about $900 billion on their credit cards, and increasingly they can't pay the bills. And until recently, a great deal of consumption was being financed by home refinancings. New data seems to show that while consumer spending has continued to grow for the past couple years, it's finally hit a wall, with a drop in the third quarter of this year that is likely to be the largest in two decades.

Then Chapman turns to the "myth" that wages are falling. First he argues this is only true if fringe benefits like health insurance, pensions, and paid leave are excluded. But a new Families USA report just confirms what is well known -- family health care premiums are rising six times faster than wages. Co-pays and deductibles have risen too, and more medical services are being excluded. Healthcare-related bankruptcies are soaring. As for pensions, traditional pensions are being raided and abandoned by troubled corporations, while 401K's are in the tank.

What about paid leave? Voices For Illinois Children reports, "Nearly half of all Americans who work in the private sector--including more than 75 percent of low-wage workers--do not get a single paid sick day."

Oh, says Chapman, but median wages are up over the last 30 years. But that's just playing games with numbers; let's break it down. Wages grew over inflation by 4.5 percent in the 1970s, 6.5 percent in the '80s, 8.3 percent in the '90s -- and they fell by 0.6 percent so far this decade. Meanwhile the economy continues to shed jobs.

And poverty is up -- a decades-long decline in poverty rates was reversed starting in 2001.

"Thanks to American capitalism, ordinary workers and families are better off today than they were a decade or a generation ago," says Chapman.

Maybe he's confusing them with ExxonMobil.