If the Economy Is So Good, Why Are People So Unhappy?

Fast food workers walk out in Minneapolis, Minnesota to demand a $15/hour minimum wage. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr/cc)

If the Economy Is So Good, Why Are People So Unhappy?

Both political parties endorse policies centered on empowering industrialists and the financial community at the expense of workers

Trump is collecting credit, while shedding blame

Donald Trump--like the narcissistic, compulsive, hyperbolic blowhard he is--keeps bragging about how good "his" economy is. The self-aggrandizing superlatives flow out of Twitter like some rancid national virus. Leaving aside the fact that presidents don't have a lot influence on the economy, and what influence they do have doesn't really take effect until well into their second year, his claims don't hold up to reality. First of all, it's not "his" economy, and second of all, the economy isn't working all that well for the vast majority of Americans.

It's only partly Trump's economy, and the part that is his is disastrous for most Americans

Let's look at the facts.

Fact number 1: Job growth was slower in Trump's first full year than it has been at any time since 2011;

Fact number 2: The stock market grew nearly continuously under Obama, cumulatively by more than 47 percent, and its growth under Trump seems to have settled in at around 16 percent (with very high volatility, as you might expect from his ADHD economic policy);

Fact number 3: Annual GDP growth is about the same under Trump as it was under Obama;

Fact number 4: Trump's insane tax cut will add at least $1.5 trillion to the debt;

Fact number 5: Trump's trade war will raise prices for consumers and cut jobs in the future, and it's causing volatility now;

Fact number 6: The already unconscionable income and wealth disparity our economy has seen since Reagan is getting worse as Trump's tax cuts go disproportionally to the ultra-rich and corporations.

Would you like fries with that? We're creating McJobs, not jobs

Even the much ballyhooed increase in wage growth began in 2012, back when Trump was a minor celebrity and long before he had any influence on the economy. It is, in fact, inevitable that wages go up as we enter an era of full employment, but it is important to understand that the increase began under Obama's presidency, and that, by historical standards it is miniscule compared to the growth of economy in general. In fact, the mystery to most economists is why wages aren't growing faster as unemployment continues to go down.

The go-to answers to this have been automation, competition with lower paid overseas workers as a result of trade agreements, relatively low growth in productivity, and suppression of unions and collective bargaining. No doubt, these all contribute to the slow wage growth, but more recently, another factor is emerging as one of underlying cause of all these symptoms. The real disease may be the increasing influence of monopolies in our economy.

According to some economists, deregulation has spawned a growth in monopolies and oligopolies; they now control much of the access to jobs, and they're using their market power to depress wages, benefits, and laws protecting workers. This market power--combined with policies making unionization and collective bargaining more difficult--means workers have become relatively powerless.

Much of the "new economy" reflects this misbalance between corporations and even small businesses, and labor. For example, an NPR/Marist poll found that 20 percent of the workforce held jobs under contract--that is, they were freelancers--and contract employees are less likely to have healthcare, a retirement plan, job protections, or benefits of any kind. Freelancers and contract workers are the fastest growing segment of the job market, and they are expected to make up half all workers within a decade.

This imbalance exists because both parties endorse policies centered on empowering industrialists and the financial community, often at the expense of workers, under the misguided notion that what's good for business is good for America. Republicans, with their "supply-side, trickle-down, tax-cuts-for-the-rich" con, make no bones about this. Democrats are a little less direct--they back innovators and entrepreneurs, or investments in "advanced manufacturing." But either way, business's interests get represented, and the people's do not. The aim of both parties is to fill their campaign coffers with money from the uber-rich and corporations.

Both parties are doing their best to preserve the status quo--and that's scary

So, it's no wonder that the majority of folks simultaneously believe the economy is doing well, but they're getting screwed. They are. Plain and simple.

This is an extremely dangerous situation, politically.

On the one hand, Trump is getting credit for managing the economy well. On the other, most people have reached the "we're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore" stage, or they've gone past it to apathy. But either way, they know the system's rigged and both parties have been guilty of a giant giveaway to the oligarchy.

Two groups are coalescing around this reality. One group wants to change the system, the other simply wants to blow it up.

Many of those who want to change the system understand that the current fat-cat economy is largely a result of longstanding policies supported by both parties. They used to be Democrats. But now, they're more interested in finding candidates who will advocate for affordable healthcare (especially single-payer); who will get money out of politics; stand up to industry, especially the gun lobby, pharmaceuticals, and Wall Street/big banks; and finally, they want a fair tax code that provides for the social safety net, not merely underwriting more corporate largess and greater income inequality. If they're not offered such candidates, many will choose to stay home on election day.

Astoundingly, the Democratic Party seems to think backing austerity and the status quo is a good campaign strategy. Look for a lower turnout in the midterms than we've seen for the off-year elections--which featured candidates who held left of center positions. And with lower turnout, Democratic gains are likely to be disappointing.

Which brings us to the rage-fueled group who want to blow up the system--mostly whites whose anger is amplified by the sense that they are losing their privileged place in society. These people will show up at the polls, and they will vote for Trump and for the Republican Party, which has been stoking the fires of hate, resentment, and bigotry for decades now. Some of these voters may even realize that Trump and his Republican enablers are essentially throwing a Molotov cocktail into the concept of governance, but that's exactly why they like him.

History tells us it is out of such cloth that despots are spawned and tyranny triumphs. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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