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It’s Called "Recovery", but Where’s the Beef?

  • Where's the Beef?

Tags U.S. EconomyU.S. History


Many economists and other analysts have recognized that the recovery from the U.S. economy’s most recent contraction has been unusually weak—weaker, for example, than any other since World War II. But analysts have disagreed in characterizing the current recovery, which according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the semi-official arbiter of business-cycle chronology, began in mid-2009 after a contraction that had continued for ten quarters. Some aspects of the economy, such as real GDP and consumer spending, have recovered their pre-recession highs and continued to increase. The rate of unemployment has fallen by several percentage points from its high of more than 10 percent. Net private business investment, which took an especially steep tumble during the contraction, has regained much of its loss.

Some of the most-cited indexes of recovery, however, are ambiguous, at best. The rate of unemployment, for example, has fallen in large part because millions of potential workers have left the labor force. The employment/population ratio, which fell by about 5 percentage points during the contraction, has barely budged from its new, much lower plateau. A growing GDP, despite its near-universal acceptance as the best measure of economic growth, actually tells us little about changes in the public’s well-being. Some components of GDP, especially some of the elements that pertain to government spending, actually should be deducted from, rather than added to, the domestic product, inasmuch as the related government activities—military aggression abroad, domestic spying on the entire population, enforcement of counter-productive and even destructive regulations, prosecution and incarceration of people whose “crimes” have no victims—harm the public, rather than improving their welfare.

Arguably the best single, currently available measure of the entire public’s payoff from economic activity is real disposable income per capita. This is the average amount per annum that Americans receive in exchange for the use of their labor and other input services, after taxes, corrected for changes in the purchasing power of the dollar. As the chart below shows, this measure of economic well-being has scarcely increased at all since 2007.

Real disposable personal income: Per capita

Robert Higgs

Dr. Robert Higgs is retired and lives in Mexico. He was a senior fellow in political economy for the Independent Institute and longtime editor of The Independent Review; he was also a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. He is the 2007 recipient of the Gary G. Schlarbaum Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Cause of Liberty, and the 2015 Murray N. Rothbard Medal of Freedom.

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