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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Editorials

Stagnant incomes are ominous symptom

Published:

The typical American family makes less than in 1989, and that’s a problem the nation dare not underestimate.

In what is advertised as an economic recovery, median household income continues to slip, down last year to $51,017 from $51,100 in 2011.

Politicians are divided over whether this is an issue for government to solve through more market intervention, such as an increase in the minimum wage, or whether too much government is itself a factor.

Whether you lean left of right, consider how the world’s many examples of sluggish economies that breed explosive politics. And also consider this question: What have we Americans done since 1989 to deserve a raise?

Some commentators are calling the income stagnation a lost generation for the middle class, or at least a lost decade. That’s an overstatement in what remains a land of high literacy and vast opportunity.

The issue is not how much better off we’d be with a few dollars more each week. It’s about expectations and politics. Politicians get elected by promising to make things better. During periods of long decline the public becomes dissatisfied and the debates grow more polarized and extreme, even to the point of shutting down the government.

Never in the history of polling in this country has any institution ranked as low as Congress did in the last Gallup poll. Only 10 percent of Americans expressed confidence in their Congress.

This lack of trust is sobering from the perspective of the success of self-government and free enterprise. What do we trust? Not big business, with a confidence rating of 22 percent. Not organized labor at 20 percent. Not newspapers and TV at 23 percent, nor public schools at 32 percent. Not the medical system at 35 percent.

Our highest level of confidence, at 76 percent, is in the U.S. military.

The lack of confidence in almost everything else is not surprising, considering the number of big issues left unresolved. And it would be naive to think that an inability to fix things comes with no unpleasant consequences.

We continue to dodge the responsibility of an aging population at a time when the number of retirees is growing faster than the number of workers who must support them.

Student debt has soared beyond the ability of many graduates to repay. The marriage rate has decreased 17 percent from 2000 to 2011.

More than four of 10 households don’t have enough money saved to cover the family’s basic living expenses for three months.

The budget of many families requires both parents to stay healthy, stay employed, and stay together.

Our transportation system is lagging behind other advanced countries.

We remember that in 1996 the head of the Florida Department of Transportation told us that “you can’t just keep widening highways and say we’re going to provide adequate transportation all over Florida.” Yet that has been the plan here and in most other states.

The country’s immigration chaos remains, despite some workable proposals to fix it. The medical system, with Obamacare nearing, has many of us perplexed and anxious.

The Federal Reserve has turned its fiscal burners up to high, yet the economy refuses to overheat.

Instead of making compliance with the tax code more understandable and less costly, Congress has made it worse. American companies face the highest tax rate among developed countries.

The hopeful news is that these problems and many others we could have listed are well within our society’s power to solve. Much can be done to make the country more productive and the future more hopeful.

With so much room for improvement, it seems that public confidence in Congress, and by extension in our own capacity for effective self-governance, has no place to go but up.

Making progress on challenges in transportation, entitlements, taxes, education and immigration might not immediately boost incomes, but at least then we would be justified in feeling due for a raise.

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