The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

September 17, 2012

Asking the wrong question during this election year

By Scott Mooneyham for the SNAP

Monday, September 17, 2012 — RALEIGH — I don’t know whether it is sad or funny, but there is little doubt that the Obama and Romney camps are playing around with a key question of any election involving an incumbent.

That question: Are you better off than you were before the incumbent took office?

The Romney camp wants to massage the question to, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Doing so ignores the fact that President Obama wasn’t in office four years ago.

For me, today, the answer to the Romney-formulated question would be no. By Jan. 20, the date of the presidential inauguration, the answer should be yes.

The reason is that my net worth, barring another financial collapse, will be higher on Jan.  20, 2013, than it was on Jan. 20, 2009, because some portion of my retirement investments have recovered from the devastating losses that occurred in the fall of 2008.

The Obama camp also wants to have its cake and eat it.

The president keeps referring to the improvement in the economy over the last 29  months. To make best light of the unemployment situation, he wants the question to be framed as, “Are you better off today than you were 29 months ago?”

The problem there is that he has been president for 44 months.

For the middle class, no matter the version, the wrong question is being asked.  

The more important question is, are you better off today than you were before the last two recessions, going back to the Internet bubble collapse of 2000?

In all of this debate over who gets blame and credit for which parts of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, it is overlooked how the housing-fueled economic growth that occurred between the last two recessions did very little to improve the economic situation of millions of middle-class Americans.

A recent report from the N.C. Budget and Tax Center found that the median household income in North Carolina had declined by nearly 10 percent over the last decade, as the state lost high-wage jobs and gained low-wage work.

Some of that decline has come as a result of and in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Not all of it.

Accounting for inflation, median household income in North Carolina was $50,156 in 2000. In 2008, it was $46,549, according to U.S. census data. During those eight years, the percentage of people in poverty in the state also remained fairly constant.  

What these numbers show is that North Carolina, after more than two decades of strong  economic growth driven largely by high-tech and pharmaceuticals, has struggled economically as that growth flattened while textile and other manufacturing job losses accelerated.

In those stagnant years, politicians of both parties, at the state and national level, have mainly offered broad policy prescriptions that focus on taxes, regulation and education.

If we want to be in a better place four years hence, something more specific is required.