The Economist: Unhappy America, Cheap and Cheerful

This week’s Economist:

One great article: Unhappy America

Many Americans feel as if they missed the boom. Between 2002 and 2006 the incomes of 99% rose by an average of 1% a year in real terms, while those of the top 1% rose by 11% a year; three-quarters of the economic gains during Mr Bush’s presidency went to that top 1%. Economic envy, once seen as a European vice, is now rife. The rich appear in Barack Obama’s speeches not as entrepreneurial role models but as modern versions of the “malefactors of great wealth” denounced by Teddy Roosevelt a century ago: this lot, rather than building trusts, avoid taxes and ship jobs to Mexico. Globalisation is under fire: free trade is less popular in the United States than in any other developed country, and a nation built on immigrants is building a fence to keep them out. People mutter about nation-building beginning at home: why, many wonder, should American children do worse at reading than Polish ones and at maths than Lithuanians?

Abroad, America has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure, to little purpose. In Iraq, finding an acceptable exit will look like success; Afghanistan is slipping. America’s claim to be a beacon of freedom in a dark world has been dimmed by Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and the flouting of the Geneva Conventions amid the panicky “unipolar” posturing in the aftermath of September 11th.

Now the world seems very multipolar. Europeans no longer worry about American ascendancy. The French, some say, understood the Arab world rather better than the neoconservatives did. Russia, the Gulf Arabs and the rising powers of Asia scoff openly at the Washington consensus. China in particular spooks America—and may do so even more over the next few weeks of Olympic medal-gathering. Americans are discussing the rise of China and their consequent relative decline; measuring when China’s economy will be bigger and counting its missiles and submarines has become a popular pastime in Washington. A few years ago, no politician would have been seen with a book called “The Post-American World”. Mr Obama has been conspicuously reading Fareed Zakaria’s recent volume

There are certainly areas where change is needed. The credit crunch is in part the consequence of a flawed regulatory system. Lax monetary policy allowed Americans to build up debts and fuelled a housing bubble that had to burst eventually. Lessons need to be learnt from both of those mistakes; as they do from widespread concerns about the state of education and health care. Over-unionised and unaccountable, America’s school system needs the same sort of competition that makes its universities the envy of the world. American health care, which manages to be the most expensive on the planet even though it fails properly to care for the tens of millions of people, badly needs reform.

One terrible article: Cheap and Cheerful

A challenge to the conventional wisdom is set out in a recent research paper* by Christian Broda and John Romalis, both of the University of Chicago’s business school. They argue that standard measures of inequality do not reflect differences in the way that the rich and poor spend their money. A person’s demand for a particular good or service does not rise in exact proportion to his income. As he grows richer, the pattern of his spending changes, as well as the amount. In particular, high-wage households spend a greater share of their income on services and a smaller share on “non-durable” items, such as food, clothing, footwear and toiletries.

For most of the past three decades, the price of non-durable goods has been falling relative to the price of the services—investment advice, personal care, domestic help and so on—that the rich spend more of their money on. If these differences between the inflation rates faced by the rich and the poor are taken into account, the rise in inequality is reduced and may even vanish.


Hey wow! I’m poor and can only afford to eat sawdust. But you know what? My inequality gap with the rich is smaller than it may have appeared because the price of sawdust is decreasing! The price of nice services like specialized health care is increasing, but that doesn’t affect me because I can’t afford them anyway, right?

Wow, let’s forget about the whole inequality thing! After all, I love eating McDonalds, potato chips, and bad quality food. As long as the junk I can afford and like to eat is cheap, let’s not worry about the income gap–nevermind there are no supermarkets in my neighborhood. Ooh, the price of meth and crack are falling too? No worry, we’re fine!


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