There is a H.L. Mencken quotation that captures the essence of this year's politics: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." The media, economic "experts" and both presidential candidates are making bad-talking our economy key features of their campaign messages. For politicians and their hangers-on, keeping the populace alarmed is a strategy to seize more control over our lives. It's so important that Senator John McCain took his economic adviser, former Senator Phil Gramm, to the woodshed for saying that America had "become a nation of whiners" and described the current slowdown as a "mental recession." Had Senator Gramm added that economically today's Americans are better off than at any time in our history, he might have lost his job altogether. Let's look at it.
Dr. W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, in the July/August 2008 edition of The American, have an article titled "How Are We Doing?". Wages and income are frequently used to measure progress but Cox and Alm say that a better measure is consumption. For example, while gasoline prices have skyrocketed, the average worker has to work about two hours to earn enough to purchase 10 gallons. In 1935, it was six hours and in 1950, over two hours. A basket of groceries that took four hours of work in 1950 to purchase now takes 1.7 hours. Annual hours of work have fallen from 1,903 in 1950 to 1,531 today. Real total compensation -- wages plus fringe benefits, both adjusted for inflation -- have been rising steadily for several generations. Fringe benefits have become a greater share of our earnings, thus dampening statistics on wage increases.
Recall that during President Carter's last year in office in 1980 what was called the "misery index", which was defined as the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates, was about 22 percent: inflation averaged 14 percent; unemployment was 7.5 percent. Today's inflation just became 5 percent, having been between 1 and 3 percent for a decade, and unemployment is 6.1. Cox and Alm say that today's problems "will turn out to be mere footnotes in a longer-term march of progress." They add that, "Since 1982, the United States has been in recession for a mere 16 months, the present slowdown notwithstanding. Over that period, the country more than doubled its inflation-adjusted output of goods and services and created jobs for an additional 50 million workers."