The wageless recovery
Inflation isn't the biggest threat to the economy. Falling into another recession is.
This week’s biggest economic show occurs tomorrow (Wednesday) when Fed chair Ben Bernanke steps in front of the cameras for the Fed’s first-ever news conference. The question on everyone’s mind: Will the Fed signal it’s now more worried about inflation than recession?Skip to next paragraph
Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
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Much of Wall Street thinks inflation is now the biggest threat to the US economy. As has been the case in the past, the Street is dead wrong. The biggest threat is falling into another recession.
The most significant economic news from the first quarter of 2011 is the decline in real wages. That’s unusual in a recovery, to say the least. But it’s easily explained this time around. In order to keep the jobs they have, millions of Americans are accepting shrinking paychecks. If they’ve been fired, the only way they can land a new job is to accept even smaller ones.
The wage squeeze is putting most households in a double bind. Before the recession, they’d been able to pay the bills because they had two paychecks. Now, they’re likely to have one-and-a half, or just one, and it’s shrinking.
Add to this the continuing decline in the value of the biggest asset most people own – their homes – and what do you get? Consumers who won’t and can’t buy enough to keep the economy going. That spells recession.
Why doesn’t Wall Street get it? For one thing, because lenders always worry more about inflation than borrowers – and, in general, the wealthier members of a society tend to lend their money to people who are poorer than they are.
But Wall Street’s inflation fears are also being stoked by several specifics.
First are price upswings in food and energy. The Street doesn’t seem to understand that when most peoples’ wages are dropping, additional dollars they spend on groceries and at the gas pump means fewer dollars they have left to spend in the rest of the economy. Rather than cause inflation, this is likely to lead to more job losses.
The Street is also worried that the Fed’s easy money policies are pushing the dollar down and thereby fueling inflation – as everything we buy abroad becomes more expensive. But if wages are stuck in the mud and everything we buy abroad costs more, Americans have even fewer dollars to spend. This also spells recession, not inflation.
Finally, the Street worries that if Democrats and Republicans fail to agree to a plan to cut the budget deficit, the credit-worthiness of the United States as a whole will be in jeopardy – causing interest rates to rocket and inflation to explode. Standard & Poors, the erstwhile credit-rating agency, has already sounded the alarm.