We keep hearing how great the economy is under President Trump — lowest unemployment since the 1960s, a surge in wage increases for black and Latino workers, a budding confidence of Americans in the future — but we don’t seem to be talking about it realistically.
In fact, as credible economists will tell you, who’s president has little to do with periodic fluctuations in the economy, even if the president happens to be the self-professed world’s best businessman ever.
It’s other metrics that matter more. For example, when the Stock Market has tanked in recent days, the president certainly didn’t take credit for that, as he shouldn’t have, at least directly. Which isn’t to say his trade tiff with the Chinese certainly isn’t helping.
So, regarding the stupendous, spectacular, very good economy we Americans are now enjoying, it’s not like manna from heaven, a kind of miracle. It has issues.
However, I do accept that unemployment is extremely low in the context of the past few decades, but I also know that a lot of people, for whatever reason, have left the national labor force and thus are uncounted in current metrics. Still, it’s reassuring that unemployment is now more like an unsightly bunion than a metastasizing malignancy.
Very minimum wages
It’s also good that blacks and Latinos are reportedly finding it easier to find jobs, but that perhaps matters less than what those jobs pay them. All over the country, low-skilled workers of every ethnic group often must work multiple jobs, at or near minimum wage just to make ends meet — and without any extras, like a movie tickets and popcorn for the family every few weeks, contributions to an IRA, or visits to a dental hygienist.
Keep in mind that the U.S. government in 2009 set the national minimum wage at $7.25, although in practice it varies from state to state, including a low of $5.15 in Georgia and Wyoming, $15 in a growing number of states (others are phasing it in gradually to $15 or close), and a more usual spread below $10 but above the national rate.
Consider that if you worked a full-time, 40-hour-per-week job somewhere in the wage middle, say $10 an hour, you would gross just $20,800. According to 2019 government figures, the official U.S. poverty level for a family of four is a maximum income of $25,750. For larger families, add another $4,420 for each additional household member.
Condemned to poverty
Another way of looking at this is that low-skilled, minimum-wage workers are condemned to poverty unless they work two or three jobs, and the excessive work hours and stress will likely shorten their lives significantly if endured over years.
But this isn’t new, either in America or elsewhere. As they say, the rich get richer (especially evident for one-percenters under the Trump administration), and the poor get kids. And perpetual poverty.
Although the Protestant wort ethic would have us believe that poverty is a reflection of lack of foresight, effort and character, that’s unsubstantiated. The reality is, whatever people’s capacity for work, discipline and native intelligence, societies over millennia have always had a similar relatively tiny proportion of winners and an exponentially larger percentage of losers.
Human nature just seems to organize groups that way. One day we might fully understand it. In the meantime, however, we can only try to mitigate its effects.
The overarching problem, though, is that through history the economic left-behinds view their failure to thrive, as they say, as an unjust cause of wealth-beholden government. And they have gotten very, very angry about it over the centuries, particularly in the middle and late Middle Ages, when, for example, France’s bourgeoise and proletariat losers in 1787-99 overthrew the king, the nobles and the Catholic Church’s social and religious stranglehold on the masses.
But the French Revolution had a very nasty downside, as revolutions tend to have, as the lower-class revolutionaries and their philosophically elite leaders eventually ended up eating each other, so to speak, by clear-cutting masses of suspected collaborators and accused anti-revolutionaries on the sharp blades of guillotines.
U.S. today is not medieval France
Twenty-first-century America isn’t 18th-century France, but the 2016 presidential vote that elected Donald Trump was a kind of mini-revolution. His devoted base of admirers disproportionately come from the lower rungs of the nation’s economic and social ladder traditionally given short shrift by government.
They had clearly had enough by 2016, and Trump and his elite political handlers created a nativist, nationalist, white-privilege brand that spoke eloquently in common language to the dashed hopes of a great swath of Americans. More than 60 million people voted for Trump, two million fewer than eventual loser Hillary Clinton, of course, but still enough to capture the all-imprtant Electoral College, which few understand but that elects presidents.
But unchecked immigration over “open borders” wasn’t the down-and-outs’ problem. It was systemic inequality.
Today, as Republicans celebrate the current, likely fleeting, bright economic moment, they (and Democrats, too) would do well to remember that the disaffected Americans that elected Donald Trump are still disaffected. A brief 6 percent rise in their minimum wages is not going to make them feel permanently richer or more valued, or put a better roof over their families’ heads.
In 2020, they will be looking for a candidate from any party who might seem to promise the substantially better future that Trump has delivered — temporarily — only to the already rich.
If the United States hopes to have a more serene republic and a more perfect union, all citizens will need to truly feel they are sharing in the nation’s prosperity. A slightly increased minimum wage just won’t do it, or a loathing of brown immigrants.
Solutions to poverty?
All elected government officials, from the village meeting hall to the U.S. Capitol, must finally coalesce to begin aggressively tackling the relentless problem of poverty and economic inequality in America. Something profoundly innovative is desperately needed. The last presidential election told us that.
A reminder: trickle-down economics has never worked, and a lot of Americans are too terrified of “socialism” to think about it rationally. What other options are wafting about out there? Let’s put on our thinking caps.
I mean, four more years of “leadership” from a self-absorbed, justice-obstructing blowhard who pathologically lies to us all the time sure ain’t gonna cut it.