Don’t look to us

Households, that is.

Household consumption has long been the mainstay of U.S. GDP, and asset-bubble-driven consumption in turn helped drive the expansions of the 1990s and 2000s. But consumption spending has been weak in this so-called recovery, growing at only about 2% (annualized and inflation-adjusted) since its trough in spring 2009, and it fell in each of the last three months for which we have data (see graph). On top of that, today’s consumer sentiment numbers are the worst in three decades. To find worse, you’d have to go back to a month that included recession, double-digit inflation, Americans held hostage in Iran, long gas lines, and the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s (this is starting to sound like a pub trivia quiz . . . the answer is May 1980).

(Graph from www.data360.org.)

File under “Outraged and paying attention”: From the press release accompanying the consumer sentiment survey data (from Thomson Reuters / University of Michigan):

‘”Never before in the history of the surveys have so many consumers spontaneously mentioned negative aspects of the government’s role,” survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.

‘The Obama administration received poor ratings from 61 percent of respondents, the worst showing among all prior heads of state. [I could not find a rating for Congress, but in recent polls Congress gets even lower ratings than Obama.]

‘”This was more than the simple recognition that traditional monetary and fiscal policy measures were largely spent; it was the realization that the government was unable or unwilling to act,” Curtin added.’

Yes. Imagine if the government had spent this year looking for ways to stimulate the economy rather than contract it through spending cuts. Failing that, imagine if if Obama had forcefully and publicly told the Republicans that it was absolutely unacceptable for them to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their root-canal economics. (It worked for Bill Clinton in 1995-96 with the government shutdown.) At least one branch of government would be seen as more focused on jobs than deficits.

Instead, as Curtin implies, the public rationally concludes that jobs take a back seat to deficit cutting on all major politicians’ agendas. And the attention given to the debt-ceiling debacle has much of the public expecting more of the same in connection with the budget appropriations deadline on Sept. 30, the deadline for the Group of Twelve’s long-term budget-cutting proposal on Nov. 23,  and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on Jan. 1, 2012. It’s easy to imagine the entire rest of the year devoted to partisan trench warfare, isn’t it? Be glad these guys are on vacation.

P.S. Title inspired by The Clash, of course. Alas, poor London. Feels weird to read about traditional looting for a change instead of the financial variant.

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2 Responses to “Don’t look to us”

  1. Mark E Says:

    This graph is just another sign that we are in a depression rather than a mere recession. As before, I suspect consumption to lag behind “recovery” for possibly a generation, even if our leaders get their act together anytime soon. They may not get it until all signs point to a recovery (this includes jobs) and people are still not buying.

    We, and the government, must face it that the future will not be the past. The yardstick for economic progress, and for the society as a whole, will have to be graduated differently. We are now in a global digital age and national boundaries are blurred at best. Corrective action with even good economic policy by yesterday’s standards won’t be enough. Of course, it would help if the people we voted for would at least try.

  2. Consumption — What a difference a month makes « Blogging Through the Wreckage Says:

    […] adjusting for inflation, the increase is 0.5%, which is the largest since 2009. It comes after three straight months of decreases in real consumer spending and a historically dismal reading for consumer confidence a few weeks […]

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