Real consumption must at some point fall

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The best way to adjudicate competing claims about today’s economy is to consider opportunities for consumption. Over much of the last two years, labor supply contracted significantly, in large part due to the pandemic. That means the economy produced less. If you produce less, sooner or later you have to consume less, too. And if you consume less, you will be dissatisfied with economic conditions, especially in America, where the consumer typically is considered to be king (or queen).

There isn’t any way around this basic logic, no matter what the data say. Even if measured consumption is currently high, at some point it will have to fall relative to expectations. And indeed there are a host of problems, with shortages, supply-chain delays and a sluggish service sector. In a normal year, more Americans would have seen “Dune” on the big screen and gone to concerts. Americans are not quite able to get what they want, and that is obscured in the aggregate statistics.

The biggest messenger for consumption losses is the rate of consumer price inflation, which measured at 6.2% on last reading. Not so many Americans expect to get an offsetting raise…in return, and above-average inflation is likely to continue for a year or two, some would say for longer. So real wages for many millions of Americans will be noticeably lower for the near future, too. That will translate into lower levels of consumption, with the timing of those losses depending on the spending and borrowing plans of individual households.

Add to all this growing and unprecedentedly high debt for the federal government, plus unfunded liabilities in Medicare and Social Security.

Even if they don’t understand the exact economic logic here, most Americans grasp the common-sense truth that inflation and deficits are bad — for them, for their real wages, and for their future opportunities. They are happy to have higher savings in the bank, but they see the treadmill turning ever faster.

Some parts of the labor shortage also qualify as a decline in consumption. One reason for the “great resignation” is that people cannot get the kinds of jobs they want. That too is a manner of enduring lower consumption, even though it does not show up in consumption statistics. It’s not just the unemployed, as many people took jobs they were only marginally happy with. A job might involve a higher risk of Covid exposure than a worker feels comfortable with, or an internship might take place in a largely empty office.

Here is the James Brown song “The Payback.”



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