Posts Tagged ‘spending’


Special mention



This semester, we’re once again teaching A Tale of Two Depressions. And, as in previous offerings of the course, we often touch on and return to the theme of the American Dream.

The students in the course get the clear sense that the definition of the American Dream changed during the 1920s (during the transition from small-town rural life to factories in the big cities) and that the First Great Depression turned that dream into a nightmare for most Americans. A new American Dream was, of course, created during the New Deals and the postwar period but began to unravel from the mid-1970s onward (as wages stagnated and the distribution of income and wealth became increasingly unequal).

What about now, six years into the Second Great Depression?

Well, a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts [pdf, ht: ja] documents the fragile financial situation of many U.S. households outside the top 1 percent—and thus how far American workers are from even imagining, let alone achieving, the American Dream.

Consider the following facts:

Household incomes are dramatically volatile: in 2011, about the same percentage of Americans (a bit more than 20 percent) had to endure a 25-percent decrease in income over a two-year period as a similar increase in income. (One of the consequences is that a large percentage—a third, according to one study—who suffered a loss in income still not recovered financially when their income was measured 10 years later.)

Household spending has declined and stayed down: since the start of the recession in 2007, American households have tightened their purse strings, reducing spending by almost 9 percent. Further, the typical rebound in expenditures following recessionary periods has not occurred since the end of the latest recession. (In contrast, during the 22 years before the start of the downturn, household expenditures grew 16 percent, with 69 percent of that growth [11 percent] occurring between 1990 and 2006.)

Household spending is extremely unequal: in 2013, the top quintile’s annual spending on housing alone ($30,901) outpaced what the middle quintile spent on housing, food, and transportation combined. (In turn, the middle quintile spent nearly as much on housing as those at the bottom spent in total across these categories.)

Most households are in a precarious financial situation: Almost 55 percent of households are savings-limited, meaning they cannot replace even one month of their income through liquid savings (money in cash, checking accounts, and savings accounts). Just under half of households are income-constrained, meaning they perceive that their household spending is greater than or equal to their household income. And 8 percent are debt-challenged, which means they report debt-payment obligations that are 41 percent or more of their gross monthly income. As it turns out, seventy percent of U.S. households face at least one of these three challenges, and more than a third face two or even all three at the same time.

Clearly, the current recovery has represented a reversal of fortunes, after a short but dramatic dip, for a small minority at the top. But, for the American working-class, there has been no recovery. They find themselves as far—many of them, even farther—from the American Dream as they were before the crash of 2007-08.


*The title is a bit of a private joke. Many years ago, before email existed, I told someone by telephone the title of my upcoming talk at American University on the role of mathematics in economics. I planned to begin my presentation with a discussion of Descartes’ dream. As I walked across campus and saw the posters announcing my talk, I realized the wording of my title had been transformed. So, as we walked into the seminar room, one graduate student turned to me and asked: “Professor, what does Dr. Who have to do with the mathematization of economics?”


Special mention

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As Aaron Carroll observes, “One of these things is not like the others.”*


*I added the arrow in case readers missed it.


Is this (for 1.3 workers) the “value of labor power” in the United States?

The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it. Labour-power exists only as a capacity, or power of the living individual. Its production consequently pre-supposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a given quantity of the means of subsistence. Therefore the labour-time requisite for the production of labour-power reduces itself to that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer. Labour-power, however, becomes a reality only by its exercise; it sets itself in action only by working. But thereby a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve. brain, &c., is wasted, and these require to be restored. This increased expenditure demands a larger income. If the owner of labour-power works today, to-morrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a labouring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel, and housing, vary according to the climatic and other physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free labourers has been formed. In contradistinction therefore to the case of other commodities, there enters into the determination of the value of labour-power a historical and moral element. Nevertheless, in a given country, at a given period, the average quantity of the means of subsistence necessary for the labourer is practically known.

The architects of the New Austerity in the United States want to cut social programs and to maintain the Bush-era tax cuts. What if we move in the other direction and propose a “reasonable” austerity program, one that increases taxes on individuals and institutions in a position to pay more?

Rick Wolff proposes just such an alternative austerity program:

Serious efforts to collect income taxes from US-based multinational corporations, especially those who use internal pricing mechanisms to escape US taxation, would generate vast new federal revenues.  The same applies to wealthy individuals.  The US has no federal property tax on holdings of stocks, bonds, and cash accounts (states and localities levy no such property taxes either). If the federal government levied a 1 per cent tax on assets between $100,000 to 499,000, and 1.5 per cent on assets above $500,000, that would raise much new federal revenue (everyone’s first $100,000 could be exempted just as the existing US income tax exempts the first few thousands of dollars of individual incomes).  Exiting the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters would do likewise.  Ending tax exemptions for super-rich private educational institutions (Harvard, Yale, etc.) and for religious institutions (church-goers would then need to pay the costs of their churches) would be among the many other such alternative “reasonable” austerity measures.

Wolff moves the debate in the right direction, away from spending cuts and toward new sources of revenue.

As it turns out, vast majorities of those polled—in the United States, as well as in Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany—support the idea of making the rich contribute more than the less well-off. Here are the numbers:

According to the same poll, similar majorities believe that public spending cuts are necessary to help long term economic recovery.

Clearly, proponents of the New Austerity have managed to turn the terms of debate about deficits in their favor. Now’s the time to reverse the debate and move it in a more reasonable direction.