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Is There Any Help for Consumers?

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"It's the Consumers, Stupid," is an oft-repeated mantra being echoed currently by Internet advocates who want to keep Internet access free. But there's a more important reason to worry about consumer health. Consumers are still way too pessimistic in the fifth year of this recovery, and that is hurting economic growth.

2014-07-22-sentiment.jpg

Graph: Reuters

There are a lot of reasons for their malaise. Incomes that can't rise faster than inflation are a major cause. So are consumers' tremendous debt loads, a result of the housing bubble. But there is a deeper reason. Tax policies and political choices have emphasized employer and investor profits over employee salaries.

Rutgers economic historian James Livingston was one of the earliest to sound the alarm that consumers need help, if our economy is to continue to grow. He maintained that consumer and government spending now drive economic growth, not corporate profits, which tend to end up in inflated CEO salaries or speculative investments, or just hoarded as cash in very liquid assets. And there has been little to help consumers create more jobs or boost their incomes.

"...corporate profits are... just restless sums of surplus capital, ready to flood speculative markets at home and abroad. In the 1920s, they inflated the stock market bubble, and then caused the Great Crash," said Livingston. "Since the Reagan revolution, these superfluous profits have fed corporate mergers and takeovers, driven the dot-com craze, financed the "shadow banking" system of hedge funds and securitized investment vehicles, fueled monetary meltdowns in every hemisphere and inflated the housing bubble."

The Congressional Budget Office says as much in its latest budget report. Thanks to the lingering effects of the recession, the aging of the country, the shrinking of the labor force, and various tax and spending policies, the nation now only has the potential to grow about 2.5 percent per year over the next decade, on average, far below the long term 3 percent average that includes the Great Depression.

"In CBO's projections, the growth of potential GDP over the next 10 years is much slower than the average since 1950," says the report. "That difference stems primarily from demographic trends that have significantly reduced the growth of the labor force. In addition, changes in people's economic incentives caused by federal tax and spending policies set in current law are expected to keep hours worked and potential output during the next 10 years lower than they would be otherwise."

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Graph: House of Debt

It's been a terrible recovery, say House of Debt economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, the worst recovery since 1950. And with the revision of Q12014 GDP growth downward to -3.0 percent from -2.9 percent, it's getting worse, not better. The reason is easy to see. It's consumer incomes, and therefore spending that has fallen off and won't return, unless more is done to encourage wage growth, for starters. The Reuters graph highlights how little consumers' Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) are contributing to economic growth at present.

Yet if government was ever allowed to create jobs again, we could have above average job creation, and so higher GDP growth for decades to come. The New Deal proved that. But with Congress's own CBO emphasizing debt, without highlighting policies that bring greater growth, there is little political will to increase job growth.

We know because net business investment declined 70 percent as a share of G.D.P. over that century, says Professor Livingston. In 1900 almost all investment came from the private sector -- from companies, not from government -- whereas in 2000, most investment was either from government spending (out of tax revenues) or "residential investment," which means consumer spending on housing, rather than business expenditure on plants, equipment and labor.

When New Deal spending kicked in, it boosted growth by literally creating millions of WPA, CCC jobs that resulted in new highways, bridges, dams, even artworks that boosted spirits and glorified the work ethic. Conversely, when government spending was cut back prematurely in 1937 in an attempt to balance the budget, the Great Depression resumed. So history continues to repeat itself, with dire consequences for everyone, really.

Harlan Green © 2014