When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

21 April 2008

Kevin Phillips: Why the economy is worse than we know

I haven't found much worth reading in Harper's these days, and let my subscription lapse last year.

But on impulse, I picked up a copy in the airport over the weekend. There's a terrific article by Kevin Phillips in the May 2008 issue (not available online unless you're a subscriber.) This will give you the flavor of it:
The truth, though it would not exactly set Americans free, would at least open a window to wider economic and political understanding. Readers should ask themselves how much angrier the electorate might be if the media, over the past five years, had been citing 8 percent unemployment (instead of 5 percent), 5 percent inflation (instead of 2 percent), and average annual growth in the 1 percent range (instead of the 3-4 percent range). We might ponder as well who profits from a low-growth US economy hidden under statistical camouflage. Might it be Washington politicos and affluent elites, anxious to mislead voters, coddle the financial markets, and tamp down expensive cost-of-living increases for wages and pensions?

Let me stipulate: the deception arose gradually, at no stage stemming from any concerted or cynical scheme. There was no grand conspiracy, just accumulating opportunisms. As we will see, the political blame for the slow, piecemeal distortion is bipartisan--both Democratic and Republican administrations had a hand in the abetting of political dishonesty, reckless debt, and a casino-like financial sector. To see how, we must revisit forty years of economic and statistical dissembling.


The real numbers, to most economically minded Americans, would be a face full of cold water. Based on the criteria in place a quarter-century ago, today's U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession. If what we have been sold in recent years has been delusional "Pollyanna Creep," what we really need today is a picture of our economy ex-distortion. For what it would reveal is a nation in deep difficulty not just domestically but globally.
(excerpt from "Numbers Racket: Why the economy is worse than we know" by Kevin Phillips, from the May 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine)

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