For anyone who’s ever wondered if they’re looking back through rose-colored glasses.
A recent report by Gallup concludes that the US economy has not actually “recovered” from the 2008–2009 financial crisis, though economists and officials started proclaiming an upswing as early as 2009 (yep, believe it).
President Barack Obama said in March that there had been 72 successive months of job creation?—?the most since the 90s?—?for a total of 14.3 million new jobs in all. Unemployment stands at 4.9% in the US. (Anything 5% or below is considered “full employment.”)
But Gallup’s Jim Clifton says the headline figures don’t tell the whole story. He says millions of Americans have simply dropped out of the middle class, and that their plight is “invisible” in the larger picture of the official unemployment rate.
How did this happen? Clifton uses as an example a person who worked full-time in 2008, earning $65,000 a year. They lost that job in the financial crisis. They found another, but now they only make $28,000 a year. They’re still part of the 95.1% of workers who are full-time employed, but they’re struggling to make ends meet.
53 million Americans eke out a living as freelancers, and by 2020, half of us may be. The implications of all this? Gallup’s data shows that only 51% of Americans now say they are in the “middle class.” That’s down from an average of 61% from 2000 to 2008. Clifton points out that those ten percentage points equate to 25 million Americans.
“More disastrous is the emotional toll on the person?—?the sudden loss of household income can cause a crash of self-esteem and dignity, leading to an environment of desperation that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.”
But wait, you say. “Recession” is a technical term that means two successive quarters of falling economic growth. Since we haven’t had that since shortly after the 2008 crash, we can’t be in a recession, right?
Well, it depends on how much you believe in our way of judging the economy. “Growth” is defined by Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. It is the sum total of all economic activity in a country. It includes things likes gains in the stock market, money received for goods sold and income from trade.
GDP is the figure most economists use to chart the health of an economy. Most, but not all.
Graeme Maxton, Secretary of the Club of Rome, a non-governmental think-tank, has been saying for years that the headline GDP figure leaves out a whole lot?—?including how well regular folks are doing. Look at stock market gains and income from trade. They make companies more healthy, and starting at the tail end of the crisis in 2009, US stocks rallied, closing at a record high on July 20, 2016. But just because a company is earning money from a higher share price doesn’t mean that company is adding new jobs. And if it is adding new jobs, that doesn’t mean those are well-paying jobs. Look back to Clifton’s example of the person who’s found new work that pays less than half as much as their pre-crisis job, and you start to get the picture.
Maxton says higher GDP growth does not create jobs, does not reduce income inequality and does not solve economic problems:
“The constant drive to increase productivity, which is what economic growth really is, requires manufacturers to steadily reduce input costs. Economic growth destroys jobs.”
Another thing to consider is that most Americans are employed by small businesses—mom-and-pops that will never be listed on a stock exchange.
Maxton and like-minded economists are looking for new ways to chart economic health?—?like including a measure of how regular people’s lives are being made better or worse.
All this has me looking back wistfully at the 1990s, when it seemed like everyone had a job. And that’s not just rose-tinted sentimentality. The 90s were the longest economic expansion in American history.
The tech boom certainly helped. While working as a CNN business journalist in Hong Kong, I remember taking a vacation back home to New York in 1998. I was struck by how even my biggest “slacker” college friends?—?it was the “slacker generation” after all?—?suddenly had great jobs. People who, a couple years before, had been on a poverty-stricken path of novel-writing, drug-taking and low-paying, part-time work were now earning $50,000 a year building websites, when they’d never even taken a programming class. Others wrote video game reviews for enviable sums. Internet boom 1.0 lifted all boats.
My recollection is backed up by the data.
Clintons’ 1993 budget was a prime driver. While it was denounced by Republicans like Newt Gingrich, who said it would “kill jobs and lead to a recession,” the opposite occurred.
“Fears of inflation waned and interest rates fell, making money cheaper to borrow for homes, cars and investment. What had been a slow economic recovery turned into a roaring boom “
Clinton’s other big contribution was reappointing Alan Greenspan to chair the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, which controls interest rates and the supply of money in the economy. Greenspan manipulated rates with carefully-worded speeches, checking growth when it looked like the economy was overheating, and helping stocks to rise to unprecedented heights.
Cheap oil was another factor. Oil-producing countries bickered and cheated on production quotas, driving down prices. Anyone remember gas at 95 cents a gallon?
The surging US economy even allowed it to shake off frightening financial crises that popped up all over the world in the late 90s?—?in Russia, Brazil, Argentina and most of Asia. A strong US market helped Asian exporters pull out of their crises. In Hong Kong, there were jobs aplenty. Investment money was everywhere, too. I quit CNN and founded a media startup and was offered $1 million by the Malaysian government on the basis of a single meeting. The air of economic potential was palpable and enervating.
It couldn’t last, of course. Companies splurged on new computers and software in 1999 amid fears of the Y2K millennium bug, but established tech companies were hurt when sales slumped afterwards. The Web startup boom started to look more like a bubble, and it was bursting. Investors heard more and more about companies with billion-dollar valuations that consisted of nothing more than a roomful of computers, and no brick-and-mortar assets, or even a sound business plan. Online media companies consolidated. By March 2001 the economy had gone into recession.
About a year after the crash came the September 11 terror attacks. They brought global finance and business travel to a screeching standstill. At one convention my startup attended, half our meetings were cancelled because purchasers were unwilling to get on airplanes for fear of hijacking. The economic impact was deeper: When the Twin Towers came down, they took the staffs of many financial companies down with them. A Madison Avenue bigwig friend told me business simply vanished: If it didn’t have to do with national security, no one wanted to advertise it. The recession deepened.
The 90s party was well and truly over. For the next 8 years we suffered through the hangover, interrupted by the US housing boom. When that bubble burst, we entered the Great Recession. And if Gallup’s Clifton is to be believed, we’re still in it.