From the Comments: Is US Economic Stagnation A Myth?

The short answer is “yes.”

In the ‘comments’ section of Dr Delacroix’s recent article on the myth of American economic stagnation, Dr Amburgey, who works at the University of Toronto’s business school, dropped three arguments at my feet. I gave him three responses and he chose to address Issue #2 first. I will await his responses to Issues #1 and #3 respectively, but I want to make sure that we are all on the same page before we get to Issues #1 and #3.

At the heart of this discussion lies Dr Delacroix’s observation:

So, the implication here is that when it comes to the unequal distribution or real economic growth you have to do two things:

A You have to slow down and make sure you understand what’s being said; it’s not always easy. Examples below.

B You have to decide whether the inequality being described is a moral problem for you or, otherwise a political issue. (I, for one, would not lose sleep over the increased poverty of the stock exchange players in my fictitious example above. As for the lady typists, I am sorry but I can’t be held responsible for people who live under a rock on purpose.)

With this in mind I think it is important to point out that because what we are discussing brings out a lot of passion, it is easy for people to look at some numbers and believe them just on principle. For example, Dr Amburgey writes:

The numbers I use come from [here]. Median household income for 1975-2012 in constant (2012) dollars. There is a picture on the wikipedia entry I gave above [found here – bc] that charts GDP per capita and median household income. Go look at it. It’s pretty much flat for median household income. In other words pretty stagnant. Numbers wise in 1975 its $45788. In 2012 it’s $51017 (less than it was in 1989 by the way). Plug the numbers into my handy dandy econometrics software and regress median household income on year and the average annual change is $232.32 per year.

I suppose ‘stagnant’ is in the eye of the beholder but I’d say that’s 38 years of economic stagnation for the American economy as a whole.

Can you see why Dr Amburgey’s statement above is untrue? I can spot two big errors in his logic (feel free to correct me or add your own in the ‘comments’ section):

  1. Median household income has, on paper, indeed stagnated. Yet this says nothing about economic decline or stagnation in the US because median household income cannot tell us what such income has been able to buy in the past 40 years. That is to say, the measurement used by Dr Amburgey, and the ensuing numbers they produced, tells us nothing about the purchasing power of the American consumer.
  2. This second error is huge in my mind. Dr Amburgey and others are plainly stating that the American economy has been economically stagnate for 40 years. This is a good example of looking superficially at some numbers and then kowtowing to proper social norms. After all, Dr Amburgey’s handy-dandy econometrics software was around in 1973, right?

None of what I am arguing denies that the US economy sucks today. I am not blaming this on the Obama administration (though it has certainly kicked us while down). Nor am I denying that there are real structural issues that need to be addressed. What I am arguing, and what I think Dr Delacroix is arguing, is that the numbers and the issues used by Leftist factions to push their beliefs through the political process are based on faulty assumptions and even faultier logic.

I am still waiting for Issues #1 and #3 to be addressed. Dr Amburgey actually has access as an author on this blog, so maybe Christmas will come early for me this year and I’ll be able to read one of his posts here at NOL.