The Economist Isn’t Just Phoning It In…

…It’s apparently an automated message. In The lessons from America’s astonishing economic record” (Apr 13th), The Economist manages to regurgitate virtually every lazy neoliberal talking point in existence. The (unsigned) article sets out to demonstrate, contra the near-universal American perception that “the economy is broken,” that the American economy is actually a “stunning success story” of “underappreciated outperformance”: “America remains the world’s richest, most productive and most innovative big economy.”

Naturally, it starts with the main go-to point of neoliberal capitalism apologists everywhere: GDP.

In 1990 America accounted for a quarter of the world’s output, at market exchange rates. Thirty years on, that share is almost unchanged, even as China has gained economic clout. America’s dominance of the rich world is startling. Today it accounts for 58% of the G7’s GDP, compared with 40% in 1990. Adjusted for purchasing power, only those in über-rich petrostates and financial hubs enjoy a higher income per person. Average incomes have grown much faster than in western Europe or Japan. Also adjusted for purchasing power, they exceed $50,000 in Mississippi, America’s poorest state — higher than in France.

Anyone with even the most basic understanding of statistics will understand why this is disingenuous bullshit. Think about what GDP and “average income” actually mean. GDP is (leaving aside complicating factors like waste production and the portion of prices that go to embedded economic rents) simply the measure of a country’s total wealth. It says absolutely nothing about who owns most of that wealth.

As for “average income,” let’s do a little thought experiment. Put Bill Gates (income $7 billion per year) in a room with nineteen unemployed, homeless people. Turns out their average income is $350 million per year. Compare that to a room full of people making $50 thousand (about what the minimum wage would be now, if it had gone up with labor productivity since 1970). To someone at The Economist, the first “country” would be by far the richer, and an awesome place to live — even though all the income goes to the top 5% of the population and the other 95% are destitute. Saying America has the highest average income is just another way of saying a person earning a $7.25 minimum wage should be proud to live in Murca because it has the richest rich people. Anyone who knows anything at all about statistics knows that average income or wealth is irrelevant — the important figure to know is median income. And the median income in Bill Gates’s room is zero

The comparison between average incomes in Mississippi and France is especially disingenuous. Nobody with any sense at all would rather be a bottom-quintile earner in Mississippi than in France — regardless of what the Eric Endicotts and Boss Hoggs bring the “average income” up to.

After being deliberately misleading, the nameless writer — apparently having realized that most poor people won’t be reading the article anyway — just comes out and says the quiet part out loud:

America has nearly a third more workers than in 1990, compared with a tenth in western Europe and Japan. And, perhaps surprisingly, more of them have graduate and postgraduate degrees. True, Americans work more hours on average than Europeans and the Japanese. But they are significantly more productive than both.

What the author is actually bragging about is that 1) a much larger share of the American population must participate in the labor force in order to survive than is the case in Europe or Japan, because American workers make such shit wages; 2) a larger share of Americans working shit jobs in order to survive have graduate and postgraduate degrees, because the bargaining power is absolutely zilch; and 3) American workers have to work longer hours despite being more productive because all the productivity gains go to senior managers and shareholders rather than to workers.

So what we’ve got so far is that the American economy is a “stunning success story” because it has the richest rich people in the world, and life sucks for everyone else. I’m beginning to see why this asshole didn’t want to sign their name.

Moving on: “American firms own more than a fifth of patents registered abroad, more than China and Germany put together.” Translation: American firms are much better at extracting rents from state-granted monopolies that give them sole right to decide who’s allowed to make or do something. 

“Investors who put $100 into the s&p 500 in 1990 would have more than $2,000 today, four times what they would have earned had they invested elsewhere in the rich world.” Yeah, yeah, we already know America is the best country in the world for people who live off property and investments instead of wages. But sure, go ahead and rub it in one more time.

Finally, the author draws some conclusions about how America achieved this spectacular economic performance. It all boils down, predictably, to Hustle:

Another lesson is the value of dynamism. Starting a business is easy in America, as is restructuring it through bankruptcy. The flexibility of the labour market helps employment adapt to shifting patterns of demand. Already many of the workers in America who were laid off from Alphabet and other tech firms at the start of the year are applying their sought-after skills elsewhere, or setting up their own businesses. In continental Europe, by contrast, tech firms are still negotiating lay-offs, and may think twice about hiring there in future….

So the writer manages to restate, in yet another way, that things in America are awesome if you’re a business owner or investor, and shitty if you’re worker. Yes, it certainly is a lot easier for a business owner to “restructure through bankruptcy” than it is for (say) an ordinary person who isn’t a Fortunate Son to declare Chapter 7 because of catastrophic job loss, crushing medical bills, or spousal abandonment. 

And don’t forget that “labor flexibility”! I’ll bet you’re glad you don’t live in one of those countries with pesky unions, job security, and bargaining power. If you’ve been exposed to the Woke Mind Virus, you might not think all that flexibility sounds so great from the perspective of a worker. But so what if your income has imploded because you lost your precarious, underpaying job? Look on the bright side: if you hustle really, really hard, you might find a new job that’s even more precarious and pays even less! 

Back in 2003 in the period right before the Iraq War, a cable news talking head gloated that, unlike countries in Europe with more vacation time, Americans worked longer hours for the national pride entailed in being able to send all those carrier groups in the Indian Ocean.

So just remember that, thanks to the efforts of people like you, billionaires in Europe and Japan hang their heads in shame before American billionaires. Isn’t that payment enough?  

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