Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: 'More for me, not for thee'

Republicans would have us all believe that the economy under Barack Obama had been a catastrophe -- "American carnage," as Donald Trump described it in his inauguration address a year ago.

We are also encouraged to believe that under Trump's inspirational leadership and business genius, the economy has suddenly begun to boom.

As the president bragged just this morning:

Trump is correct about the rapid rise of the stock market, although he ignores two pertinent facts:

1.) The Dow also grew by 250 percent during Obama's eight-year term.

2.) Markets everywhere in the world happen to be booming right now, with U.S. markets actually underperforming the global trend by a slight amount. In short, Trump and his "Make America Great Agenda" have as much to do with this trend as he did for global airline safety.

But again, Trump is correct on the larger point. With U.S. corporate after-tax profits already at or near record highs, and with a huge new tax cut for corporations and the wealthy under their Christmas tree, the immediate future is very bright indeed for Wall Street and the "global elites," the very groups whom Trump the candidate used to rail against and promise to fight on behalf of working people.

The problem is that the benefits of that stock-market jump aren't at all widely shared. Roughly half of American households own no stock at all. Over the last 10 years, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who own stock has fallen from 65 percent to 52 percent. Furthermore, most of the 52 percent of Americans who do hold stock own relatively small amounts of $10,000 or less.

According to 2013 data, the most recent I could find, the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. families -- those with a net worth of roughly $1 million or more -- own 85 to 90 percent of stock shares, bonds, trusts, and business equity. That means that they are reaping 85 to 90 percent of the benefits from the ongoing rise in stock value. (The wealthiest 1 percent own 38 percent of all stocks.) Those numbers tell us that the soaring stock market is a primary driver for soaring economic inequality; it does not and cannot raise all boats equally, or even at all.

What does raise all boats are job growth and wage increases. Or as Trump puts it in his tweet above, "Jobs, jobs, jobs." His recurrent theme -- from his campaign extending into his presidency -- is that supposedly abysmal job growth under Obama would finally begin to soar under his guidance, and he has repeatedly bragged about huge success in that effort.

Let's take a look at that huge success, shall we?

Earlier this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its job-creation estimates for December, and thus its final tally for 2017. According to the BLS, the economy added 148,000 jobs last month, and a total of 2.05 million jobs for all of 2017.

That's a lower annual job-creation total than in 2016.

Or 2015.

Or 2014.

Or 2013.

Or 2012.

Or 2011.

And you know who hasn't gotten much love lately? Our old friend, the labor participation rate. Back in the 2016 campaign, labor participation was the right's go-to statistic when it wanted to attack Obama's economic policy. After a year under Trump's "economic boom," the BLS tells us that the labor participation now stands at 62.7 percent.

Exactly where it stood at the end of 2016.

And at the end of 2015. When it was supposedly terrible, but now is great.

How about coal-mining jobs? "Coal is booming! Coal is back!" According to the BLS, coal mines have added a total of 500 workers, nationwide, in the past year.

How about wages? Theoretically, years of job growth and a low jobless rate ought to be forcing pay rates higher, enabling workers to finally begin to share in the prosperity. The experts say they expect it to start happening, any day now, just as they've been saying for years. But there's no real sign of it yet. In 2017, according to the BLS, annual wage growth was 2.5 percent, barely above the inflation rate of 2.2 percent.

In other words, while the stock market booms, jumping by 25 percent in a year's time, the wages being paid to average, working Americans remain all but flat. And while the tax cuts are supposed to change that by putting hundreds of billions more into the coffers of the rich and corporations, nobody has explained the magical mechanism by which that will reverse the decades-long trend in which Americans who earn a salary or a wage get a smaller and smaller share of the nation's economic output.




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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.