Whether the Economy Is in a 'Double Dip' or in Stagnation, It's Clear We're in a Downward Spiral

The government is seen as favoring large institutions and corporate power, not people.

Double dip or stagnation? Whatever you call it, we seem to be headed for a downward spiral.

Standin at the crossroad babe
risin sun goin down
Standin at the crossroad babe
eee eee eee, risin sun goin down
I believe to my soul now,
Poor Bob is sinkin down

–”Crossroad Blues“, by Robert Johnson (1936)

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the possibility of a double-dip recession. I do not know if we will actually go to a double dip or just substandard growth given the high level of underutilized human resources. But that is beside the point.

It is a very sad feeling, one that I had during the aftermath of Katrina, when the government reveals that it does not intend to respond to a crisis. It is a cold, dehumanized feeling. The tolerance of 9.5 percent unemployment, which is in reality a much larger number (say 15 percent) than the official numbers, is a symptom of dysfunction.

The dysfunction arises in part because of a failed vision. Society needs public goods and their repair. Adam Smith identified this in the Wealth of Nations. Education, schools, roads bridges are the lubricant of a productive society and there is no better time to repair or upgrade them than when you have slack resources that can be hired to address the task. Denigration of government’s essential role has gone on too long. It is doing us harm. Yet it has roots in experience.

Our lockdown on spending is a symptom of lack of trust. It is also in part because our government is seen by the population as favoring large institutions and corporate power, not people. Given the choice between perceived corporate welfare that enlarges our future tax burden and curtailing the government, many people now opt for the latter. Not because people lack the desire for services, but because we do not trust our political system to deliver those needed services. See a recent Pew Reseach Poll, which illustrates the pervasive perception that government economic policies benefit Wall Street rather than Main Street.

This is a very difficult impasse. Given the way the government behaved, insuring the powerful during the bailouts and after, it is understandable that trust has eroded. It is a question of representation and political voice. It is like being asked to pay dues to a golf club but then being told that only the powerful and connected will get to play the course.

We are amidst a breakdown. An irrational macroeconomic strategy and a nonsensical growth strategy is being chosen in a way that is perfectly understandable in a money politics-driven collapse of trust in government decision making. Deterioration of government services is bad enough, but imposing austerity due to lack of trust in a time of high unemployment and slack resources is tragic. It is a means to accelerate the decline of living standards of those who have taken a beating since 2007. Double dip or stagnation is too subtle a distinction. We are amidst an unfolding collective choice to pursue a downward spiral. I do not for a minute believe this will result in a lower debt/GDP ratio. I do see deflationary risks as a prelude to an inflationary response. Our leaders, showing their fear by responding to the fearful polling results are not leading. Where will this end? As the Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly” from the movie “Once” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova pleads with us:

Falling slowly, eyes that know me
And I can’t go back
Moods that take me and erase me
And I’m painted black
You have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It’s time that you won

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you had a choice
You’ve made it now

Rob Johnson is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Project on Global Finance at the Roosevelt Institute.
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