Awkward News

Obviously we are all part of one economic system, but to look at the news it seems as if there are at least two different constituencies out there – if not two realities or two classes.

MarketBeat,” The Wall Street Journal’s column on market news noted: “Yes, it’s that time again, folks. It’s the first Friday of the month, when for one ever-so-brief moment the interests of Wall Street, Washington and Main Street are all aligned on one thing: Jobs.”

The breezy tone tries to minimize the obvious fact that most of the time everyone’s interests are not aligned. To be sure, more jobs can mean more cash in the hands of consumers and that, in turn, can mean eventually more profit for business, which ultimately can lead to profits for investors – but the link is not direct. In fact, just as often, cutting jobs leads to greater immediate profits for business and gains for investors.

Moreover, the kinds of jobs being filled affect the economy as well. As The Huffington Post reported: “we have become a nation of hamburger flippers, Wal-Mart sales associates, barmaids, checkout people and other people working at very low wages,” quoting a managing partner of a New York investment bank. That’s why job growth is “not increasing consumption or the ability to go out and buy stuff.” (See, “July Jobs Report Masks Real Problems In U.S. Labor Market.”)

One has to dig down into the data to get a better idea of how things really are. The Wall Street Journal did note: “Friday’s report also said that average earnings fell by 2 cents to $23.98 an hour, while the average workweek decreased 0.1 hour to 34.4 hours.” The Journal drew the obvious conclusion: “Lower wages and fewer hours mean less money in consumers’ pockets.” (See, “U.S. Adds 162,000 Jobs, Continuing a Tepid Run.”)

Clearly there is a great deal of anxiety in our system over these trends, as stock prices are reaching record levels. Sometimes the jobs news is trumpeted as a sign of continuing recovery, sometimes as disappointingly slow. And the fragmentary nature of the overall economic news keeps us confused.

We now are all aware of out growing income disparity and the risk we run of becoming an unequal nation, without the chances for advancement that have been the hallmark of “the land of opportunity.” But reading the press and scanning the media it seems as if we don’t really want to know. An occasional OpEd article tries to put the pieces together. The President refers to the problem. But we are avoiding some obvious conclusions.

One might be that nothing can actually done to change these trends. Another might be that we could actually do something about it but our system lacks the capacity to make any significant changes. Finally, there is the threat of looming class warfare. The rich exert unequal influence over the political process as election campaigns become more and more costly. But in the end it is the poor who have more votes.

America has a rich history of populism, and it is not impossible to imagine a movement arising in response to these trends. But could it be repressive and authoritarian? Could the threat of terrorism be invoked to clamp down on popular discontent? Or could we actually become a more equal society?