Every time I hear George W. Bush brag about turning around the economy I do a double take. What are you talking about? I see pitiful little evidence of an economic recovery going on, no matter how many ads our president buys to try to convince us of the contrary.
I reacted the same way when the local "political consultant" who writes for the Albuquerque Tribune devoted an entire week's worth of invective to the topic of how spectacular the job recovery has been and how in a rational universe that ought to cinch the election for Dubya if all those nay saying Democrats would just shut up.
Say what? Listen, when it comes to our pocket books, American voters don't need guide dogs ... of either party. I mean, save your editorial sputtering and your political commercials for topics where our direct experience hasn't produced unshakable opinions.
Confuse us about the war in Iraq, for instance, or the one on terrorism (or try to tell us they are the same thing), or maybe make a big honking deal out of some trumped up moral malignancy threatening the nation like gay marriage, partial birth abortions or the separation of church and state. Those are fertile fields for propagandizing; but not the economy, for crying out loud.
We know about the part of the economy that matters most, our part. We can read our bills and our pay stubs and our vote will be based on that firsthand knowledge of the state of our economy, not some number spinner's computerized analysis of how bright our statistical picture is.
We're concerned with our wallets at the polls, not the Council of Economic Advisors.
So why is Kerry getting applause when he says the economy is still in the tank and Bush getting cheers when he says it's soaring? Simple. Kerry is talking to the people who have credit card debt and Bush is talking to the bankers who collect all those payments. How you view the state of the economy will mostly depend on which end of the credit card food chain you occupy.
Jim Hightower, in his book Thieves in High Places, describes how self-defeating our current economic policies are. By squeezing the middle class, we're wiping out our historically best market for what we produce. It was Henry Ford's greatest genius to recognize that his assembly line workers were going to be his car's best customers, so he made sure they could afford Model Ts.
Today there are many conditions making survival of the middle class difficult. Jobs get shipped overseas (sometimes with the active assistance of our government); wages are flattening, especially when compared with the cost of living; labor union influence is at its lowest in 60 years.
From the full list of perils threatening working class Americans, two deserve special mention. I think that the vaunted Bush "recovery" is faltering primarily because of the sapping effect of credit card debt and health care costs.
A few months ago, it briefly looked like the tiny portion of the Bush tax cuts that reached the middle class might actually spark a turnaround. Retail sales jumped right after the tax cuts took effect. Optimism grew. Then it fizzled out quickly. The "bump" was short lived; the recovery stunted. Why?
The answer is that most of us buy stuff with cards. And the deregulation of the credit card industry has ushered in an era of interest rates that jump like kangaroos with every late or missed payment, often bouncing up into the 24 percent annual range. A couple of those bounces and a family can face "minimum monthly payments" so large there's nothing left to buy anything else with.
Of course, if all you do is tread water by making minimum monthly payments, you're actually sinking. And most working class families today are up to their nasal passages in credit card debt, not because we're compulsive shoppers, but because the only way we've managed to cope with gasoline inflation is to ring it up on plastic money ... where we end up paying far more than the official $1.85 a gallon.
Meanwhile, health care costs are killing us.
True story: My wife and I got a notice that our monthly premiums were going to be increased. This is for a "high deductible" ($4,500 annually) policy we tied to a Medical Savings Account (a scheme the Republicans advance as a smart way to cope with rising health care costs). We'd had the policy for a year, paying our monthly $589 premiums faithfully and had not made a single claim in that time. Everything had been out of pocket: doctors, pharmaceuticals and lab work.
We'd paid $7,000 in premiums for nothing ... other than a slightly calmer sleep pattern. Yet now we were told we would have to pay $789 a month (34 percent more) if we wanted that same (and I use the word only in the broadest sense) coverage.
We could share health insurance horror stories all day. I hear them everywhere. Small businesses devastated by health premiums. Working class families walking around on tip-toe, relying on prayers for health because their employers can't offer medical benefits. If they actually get sick, they will be bankrupt. So they pray.
Add crushing credit card debt to spiraling health care costs, mix in a spoonful of gasoline prices bubbling out of control and you have a surefire recipe for getting a fix on this economy. At least on your part of it. You know, the voting part.