American voters go to the polls in five weeks. They are deeply angry about the bailout, voted down in the House of Representatives by 228 to 205. The bill will be enacted, though. Republicans will have to sign on because the Democrats, who control Congress, don’t want to take full responsibility for one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation ever introduced. Conservative Republicans hate the idea of government taking over the free market. Liberal Democrats hate the idea of Wall Street fat cats getting a free ride on the backs of hard-working taxpayers. The more the public focuses on what has gone wrong, the angrier people become.
So why can we be sure the bailout will go forward? Because no member of Congress wants to be held responsible for the meltdown of the American economy. The stock market dropped precipitously on Monday after the House failed to pass the bailout bill – the largest one-day drop in history, by value. Roughly half of all American families have some retirement money in the stock market. And even if they don’t own shares of stock, an increasing number are feeling the pinch of an economy gradually grinding to a halt.
Bailout or no bailout, the US economy is going into deep recession. One of the first things Congress will have to do when it returns in January – and one of the first initiatives of the next president – will be an economic “stimulus package”, designed to get the economy moving through good old-fashioned Keynesian fiscal policy. Sad to say, even an adequate stimulus package will offer only temporary relief this time, because this is not a normal downturn.
The problem lies deeper. Most Americans can no longer maintain their standard of living. Remember, Wall Street’s near-meltdown originated with the bursting of the great housing bubble. That bubble had allowed millions of Americans to take money out of their homes by using their rising home values as collateral for loans. But now the bubble has burst, those homes can no longer be used as piggy banks. As a result, America’s huge middle class no longer has the money it needs to buy the goods and services that it produces.
The bubble masked this basic reality: for most Americans, earnings have not kept up with the cost of living. The earnings of non-government workers who are paid by the hour – and who comprise 80 per cent of the American workforce – are lower today than they were in 2000, adjusted for inflation. They are barely higher than they were in the mid-1970s. Indeed, the income of a man in his thirties is now 12 per cent below that of a man his age three decades ago. Productivity per person has grown considerably over the past three decades, and has continued to rise even in the lacklustre recovery of this decade. However, most Americans have not reaped the benefits of those productivity gains. The benefits have gone largely to the wealthy few.
The top 1 per cent of American earners now take home about 20 per cent of total national income. In 1980, the top 1 per cent took home just 8 per cent. Inequality on this scale is bad for many reasons, but it is particularly bad for the economy. The wealthy devote a smaller percentage of their earnings to buying things than the rest of us, because, after all, they’re rich. They already have most of what they want. Instead of buying, the very wealthy are more likely to invest their earnings wherever around the world they can get the highest return.
This underlying earnings problem has been masked for years as middle- and lower-income Americans found means to live beyond their earnings, but they have now run out of such coping mechanisms. The first such mechanism was to send more women into paid work. Most women streamed into the workforce in the 1970s less because new professional opportunities opened up to them than because they had to prop up family incomes. The percentage of American working mothers with school-age children has almost doubled since 1970 – to more than 70 per cent. Yet there is a limit to how many mothers can maintain paying jobs.
So Americans turned to a second way of spending beyond their hourly wages. They worked more hours. The typical American now works more each year than he or she did three decades ago. Americans became veritable workaholics, putting in 350 more hours a year than the average European, more even than the notoriously industrious Japanese.
Yet there is also a limit to how many hours Americans can put into work, so Americans turned to a third coping mechanism. They began to borrow. With housing prices rising briskly through the 1990s and even faster from 2002 to 2006, they turned their homes into piggy banks. Now, with the bursting of the housing bubble, Americans are reaching the end of their ability to borrow and lenders have reached the end of their capacity to lend.
Regardless of the Wall Street bailout, typical Americans have run out of coping mechanisms to keep up their standard of living. That means there is not enough purchasing power in the economy to buy all the goods and services it is producing. We are finally reaping the whirlwind of widening inequality and ever more concentrated wealth.
The only way to keep the economy going over the long run is to increase the real earnings of middle- and lower-middle-class Americans. The answer is not to protect jobs through trade protection. That would only drive up prices of everything purchased from abroad. Most routine jobs are being automated anyway. Nor is the answer to give tax breaks to the very wealthy and to giant corporations in the hope they will trickle down to everyone else. We have tried that and it hasn’t worked. Nothing has trickled down. The Wall Street bailout may be necessary in order to keep credit markets working, but it is almost irrelevant to this larger and more important story.
The long-term answer is for Americans to invest in the productivity of working people, enabling families to afford health insurance and have access to good schools and higher education, while also rebuilding infrastructure and investing in the clean energy technologies of the future. We must also adopt progressive taxes at the federal, state and local levels. We must rebuild the American economy from the bottom up. Bailout or no bailout for Wall Street, the economy of America’s Main Streets cannot be rebuilt from the top down.
Robert Reich is professor of public policy, University of California at Berkeley, former US secretary of labour, and the author, most recently, of “Supercapitalism: the Battle for Democracy in an Age of Big Business” now available in the UK from Icon