ABC News has an interesting piece on why the booming US economy doesn’t translate into a positive economic outlook for the average American. It is somewhat mysterious – unemployment is very low (4.7%), economic growth is high, and wage growth is steady. By all accounts, the average American worker is exceptionally well off – despite all the worries about outsourcing, 2.3 million jobs have been added to the US economy since August of 2003. Even tax revenues have gone sharply upward. So why is there such pessimism over the state of the economy?
Gas prices are certainly part of it, as they have the largest instant psychological impact. People don’t immediately see a fluctuation in GDP growth, but the second prices at the pump go up $0.05 everyone in the country notices. However, SUV sales are still strong, and people don’t seem to be cutting back on consumption, which suggests that filling up is nowhere near painful enough to warrant people changing their habits. It’s been estimated that $4/gal gas would have a significant impact on people’s habits, but $2.50-$3/gal doesn’t seem to be forcing people to take much action.
If jobs and gas aren’t the issue, what else is? The ABC article mentions debt as being one factor. High levels of credit card debt and home equity debt is altogether too common in this country – if you can fog a mirror, you can get a credit card these days. It’s exceptionally easy for someone to get in over their heads, and payday loan/car title loan shops prey on the financially weak. This would certainly put a squeeze on the average consumer, even if all they have is a few grand in credit card debt.
Of course, the media plays a role in all of this too. Remember in 2004 when Bush was responsible for “the worst economy since Hubert Hoover”? Either the US economy has made a miraculous recovery since then, meaning that Bush’s policies did more than the New Deal in a faster amount of time, or that whole line of argumentation was a crock. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which scenario is the most likely. However, the media narrative of imminent doom never really went away – part of it is due to our natural sense of pessimism, part of it is because good news doesn’t garner good ratings, and undoubtedly part of it is due to the political biases of the media – any news which might give the Bush Administration credit isn’t likely to make it through the ideological blinders of the mainstream media.
The new Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, formerly of Goldman Sachs has his work cut out for him – the US economy is doing very well, but we’ve also gone through one of the lengthier periods of economic growth in recent times – and what comes up must come down. Not only that, but Paulson is going to have to combat that sense of economic pessimism, which is a difficult job in itself. John Snow, Paulson’s predecessor at the Treasury was an able economic steward, but a very poor salesman. Paulson’s position as the former CEO of Goldman Sachs means that he’ll have much more influence over the markets than Snow did. Paulson’s not the showy type, but he is the sort of person who can make an effective Secretary of the Treasury.
The US economy is performing exceptionally well, and nearly every sign of growth and success bear that out – but because the Bush Administration hasn’t fought back against the pessimism of their critics in any real, that negative public perception is hurting Bush’s approval ratings. Paulson will have a difficult job in combating that perception, but at least the Bush Administration seems to be willing to combat the problem.