By MATT KIBBE
Americans know that there is a serious problem in the economy. Incomes are stagnant, and the employment situation is not improving in a meaningful way. In fact, according to new Census data, average American incomes remained virtually unchanged in 2013 and were actually 7% lower than in 2007 after adjusting for inflation. And yet, GDP continues to rise, and we are assured by the administration that the economy is in recovery. So what’s really going on here? A look at the data is revealing. Until 1999, GDP and income growth tended to move together. But since the turn of the millennium, incomes have remained flat while GDP has continued to rise, according to an analysis from the New York Times. Observing the peaks and valleys of the income line leads to some interesting conclusions. In 1999, a major worry facing Americans was a pesky computer glitch, known as the Y2K bug, that many feared would destabilize financial markets and banking systems. While none of this actually happened, the Federal Reserve, then headed by Alan Greenspan, responded with aggressive monetary expansion, increasing the country’s cash reserves by about one-third.
After the recession in 2001, partially (but only partially) brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Fed continued to increase the money supply and incomes continued to decline. It was only when this expansionary monetary policy tapered off that incomes began to rise again in the runup to 2007.
Of course, 2007 brought the collapse of the housing bubble, and the response was still more stimulus. This time, they called it “quantitative easing.” When the economy failed to improve, the Fed implemented QE2 followed by QE3, continuing to flood markets with easy money and further devaluing the currency in the process.
If you look at the difference between GDP and income growth after 2007, GDP continues to rise, while incomes actually fall with time. The peaks and valleys in real income growth correspond well to aggressive action from the central bank, and while the economy is too complex a system to be explained by a single cause, the correlation is one well worth taking note of. Some argue that a lack of observed inflation means that there is nothing to worry about in what the Fed is doing, but inflation can show up in many places other than consumer prices. The Dow Jones has continued to rocket skyward, even as incomes and employment have remained flat, and commodity prices have shown signs of price bubbles that may soon burst. The high prices one would expect from massive monetary expansion are out there, they are just hiding in specific sectors of the economy, waiting to spill over into consumer prices. There are also structural problems in the economy that contribute to the problem of income stagnation. There is a mismatch of skills between workers and employers that is being exacerbated by the misdirection of resources resulting from artificially low interest rates. There are always winners and losers when government intervenes in the economy. In this case, the winners are fat-cat bankers and politicians. The losers are everyone else.
This is why country club Republicans are content to pretend this problem doesn’t exist, while Democrats increase their calls for forcible redistribution of wealth. Neither of these approaches comes close to addressing the real problem: the Fed’s easy-money policies. Real investment comes only from surplus value created by production. It doesn’t come from people taking out more loans at lower and lower interest rates. All this does is create distortions in the economy that hinder actual growth.
This is not a new idea. F.A. Hayek won a Nobel Prize for developing this theory of business cycles in 1974, and the Austrian school of economics had been warning about the dangers of artificial credit expansion for nearly a century before that. Still, today the Federal Reserve remains one of the most powerful and unaccountable institutions in the world. But it doesn’t have to be. For the second time in the last three years, the House just overwhelmingly voted to audit the Fed and demand some degree of transparency in one of America’s most secretive agencies.
When this bill passed the House in 2012, Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to bring it to a vote in the Senate, despite having repeatedly gone on record in support of a Fed audit. He shouldn’t be allowed to duck responsibility a second time. Anyone who is concerned about the economic stagnation in America, either on the left or the right, should demand accountability from the agency that wields tremendous power with very little transparency. The middle class deserves better than to watch their money waste away in the interest of propping up the nation’s biggest banks.