Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

Karl Smith points out today that, even during the depths of the Great Recession, we were wealthier than we were in the ’90s; we consumed more than in the ’90s; and we had more average net worth than in the ’90s. So why do we all feel so crappy about things? Answer: because one thing we aren’t is more secure in our jobs than in the ’90s. A lot more of us are unemployed, a lot more of us are underemployed, and a lot more of us who still have jobs are afraid that we might be next:

Lack of jobs is why everyone feels bad, not because they have less or are poorer or the country isn’t producing or consuming as much. And, not to get too meta — in what I hope is an easily readable post — but an economy that makes lots of people feel bad is by definition a bad economy.

Moreover, the feeling that you have now about the economy is not the feeling of lack of value creation. It’s not the feeling of socialism….[In a socialist economy] it’s not that you are afraid of losing what you have or that budget constraints are pinching. It’s that the stuff which is available to you sucks. It — in extreme cases — is a world where everyone has a job but where no grocery store has fresh milk. It’s a world where everyone gets a pay check but no one can find shoes that fit.

….The Great Recession: that’s a problem with jobs, with labor. And, it’s very different in kind. When we think about what’s going wrong here and how to fix it, we have to keep that squarely in mind.

All true. But I’d point out one other thing that’s worse than it was in the ’90s: household debt. The chart on the right shows total household debt as a percentage of GDP, and as you can see, it’s come down a bit since its peak in 2008. Still, it needs to drop by about a sixth just to get back to its long-term trend line, and it needs to drop by a full third to get back to the same absolute level as 1995. Even with interest rates low, that kind of debt overhang makes people feel very bad indeed, and puts a serious crimp in their ability to buy goods and services.

Still, point taken. There’s not that much intrinsically wrong with the fundamentals of our economy. In the immediate term, we don’t have big worries about inflation or government debt or technological stagnation. We need to deleverage, and once we do that people will start to spend again. Regardless of our longer-term prospects, we should be addressing this much more vigorously—and in the meantime, our focus should be on monetary and fiscal stimulus focused on getting people back to work. It’s criminal that we aren’t doing it.

WE'RE TAKING A SHORT BREAK…

from the big banner at the top of our pages asking for the donations that make Mother Jones' nonprofit journalism possible. But we still have upwards of $300,000 to raise by June 30, whether we get there is going to come down to the wire, and we can't afford to come up short.

If you value the reporting you get from Mother Jones and you can right now, please join your fellow readers who pitch in from time to time to keep our democracy-advancing, justice-seeking journalism charging hard (and to help us avoid a real budget crunch as June 30 approaches and our fiscal year ends).

payment methods

WE'RE TAKING A SHORT BREAK…

from the big banner at the top of our pages asking for the donations that make Mother Jones' nonprofit journalism possible. But we still have upwards of $300,000 to raise by June 30, whether we get there is going to come down to the wire, and we can't afford to come up short.

If you value the reporting you get from Mother Jones and you can right now, please join your fellow readers who pitch in from time to time to keep our democracy-advancing, justice-seeking journalism charging hard (and to help us avoid a real budget crunch as June 30 approaches and our fiscal year ends).

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate