U.S. incomes rose and the poverty rate fell last year, according to the Census Bureau’s annual report on economic well-being. The authoritative survey showed continuing progress since the 2007-09 recession. By some measures, however, Americans haven’t returned to levels of prosperity achieved nearly two decades ago.
Government statistics paint an excessively grim picture of what is happening to real wages and the growth of real national income. Although most households’ take-home cash has been rising very slowly for decades, their standard of living is increasing more rapidly because those wages can now buy new and better products at little or no extra cost. The government’s measure of real incomes gives too little weight to this increase in what take-home pay can buy. The common assertion that middle-class households have seen no increase in real incomes for 30 years is simply not true. And contrary to a common fear, most members of the younger generation will have higher real incomes as adults than their parents had at the same age. The government’s growth estimates are excessively pessimistic for two reasons. First, government statisticians grossly understate the value of improvements in the quality of existing goods and services. More important, the government doesn’t even try to measure the full contribution of new goods and services.
Some humility from the authors would have been welcome about the risks of the radical restructuring that basic income would entail; Van Parijs and Vanderborght see only upside. To illustrate the downside potential, consider the poor results from annual per-capita payments of casino revenues to American Indian tribes (not discussed in the book). Some tribes enjoy a very high “basic income”—sometimes as high as $100,000 per year— in the form of these payments. But as the Economist reports, “as payment grows more Native Americans have stopped working and fallen into a drug and alcohol abuse lifestyle that has carried them back into poverty.” The magazine contrasts this fate with that of more successful tribes like Washington State’s Jamestown S’Klallam, which eliminated poverty by investing in tribal-owned small businesses instead of handing out cash grants.
The U.S. economy expanded at its most robust pace in more than two years in the spring and appears to have momentum going into the second half of the year, supported by solid consumer spending and a pickup in business investment.
Gross domestic product, a broad measure of the goods and services produced across the U.S., rose at a seasonally and inflation-adjusted annual rate of 3% in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That was the strongest quarter in more than two years and some forecasters expect growth will remain around that pace in the third quarter.
The President has vowed to get economic growth back above 3% after the dreary slow recovery of the Obama “new normal.” What’s as sweet as the faster growth last quarter is the way it was achieved—with less spending by state and local governments but more consumer spending and rising business investment.
This last part is especially important. Lackluster business investment was a hallmark of the Obama era. And who could blame executives for being reluctant to pull the trigger on new plants and equipment? It was impossible to know what new intervention in the private economy regulators were dreaming up in Washington. When businesses don’t invest in new tools, workers have a hard time becoming more productive, which in turn means workers can’t demand higher pay.