October marked "the 59th month of economic recovery and expansion, thereby setting the record as the longest U.S. peacetime expansion since World War II," brag the Republican members of the Joint Economic Committee. "America boasts the highest production, employment, and income figures ever recorded." Unemployment is way down, inflation and interest rates have barely edged up, leading indicators are positive. The stock market lurches nervously, but resists its long-predicted "major readjustment."
It's hard to argue with success. Pollyanna says we're headed for more. After five years of shrieking, "This can't last," Cassandra is getting hoarse and losing her credibility. Yet she persists. And a mere cyclical recession is not in her script. She predicts calamity.
Writing in the October Atlantic, investment banker Peter G. Peterson focuses on the trade deficit as an expression of America's preference for consumption over savings and investment. Last year we spent 3.5 percent more than we earned, and borrowed the rest. The extra money didn't go for higher investment that will pay for itself. It went for increased consumption.
According to Peterson, the average American worker consumes $3,100 more a year than at the beginning of the Reagan era. About $1,000 of that came from genuine economic growth. The rest came either from foreign borrowing or from lower domestic investment, which will reduce future growth.
Foreigners won't finance our life style forever. At some point, we've got to start consuming less than we produce. By Peterson's math, a stagnant or declining standard of living for the next decade or so is inevitable. The only question is whether we put ourselves on a rigorous diet, using the savings to pay off the foreigners and invest for a productive future, or starve in a worldwide economic cataclysm set off by our own piggery.
Left-wing economist Robert Heilbroner, writing in the Sept. 14 New Yorker, goes further. Heilbroner sees the trade deficit as just a symptom of the collapse of imperialistic capitalism. World trade was fine when we had all the industry, and poor countries had only handicrafts to sell. But now that transportation and communication have made it possible to locate advanced technology in low-wage countries, a society like ours doesn't have much to offer.
Then there's Ravi Batra, author of the best-selling book, "The Great Depression of the 1990s." To the stew of despair, Batra adds a theory of 30- and 60-year cycles (since we avoided a 1930s-style collapse in the 1960s, we're due for one in the 1990s), and a bit of spiritual analysis from an Indian guru.
So who's right, Pollyanna or Cassandra? Pollyanna loses a few points for misrepresentation. The oft-repeated phrase "longest peacetime recovery" is designed to exclude the eight-year expansion from 1961 to 1969, during Vietnam. But economically, this has been wartime, with a military buildup equivalent to Vietnam. The "peacetime" record we just surpassed, was the late 1970s -- hardly thought of now as a period of wondrous prosperity, and yet an expansion that surpassed the current one in terms of real growth.
Cassandra also loses a few points for letting dyspepsia cloud her vision. The common argument that our trouble is a hopeless competition with low-wage societies is dispatched by Robert Z. Lawrence of Brookings. Lawrence notes that the share of our imports coming from underdeveloped nations is roughly the same now as in 1981, when we were still the world's creditor.
However, Cassandra's basic math is hard to argue with. Of course, she's been singing the same sad song, with different lyrics, since 1982, as the economy has gone from strength to strength. In the beginning, she argued that the huge Reagan deficits would inevitably lead either to inflation or, if the Federal Reserve Board moved to avoid this calamity, a new recession. She failed to account for the internationalization of finance and the willingness of foreigners to fund our wastrel ways. Now she sings that putting off the day of reckoning will only make it worse.
And that's true. There are only three ways to right the books. We can consume less, invest less, or produce more. Obviously the third option is the best, the second option the worst. But producing more requires investing more too. Peterson figures that at current growth rates consumption per worker must decline $165 a year for 10 years -- total $1,650 -- in order to pay off the furriners and invest for the future. That's his good-news scenario.
One bright spot the Cassandras overlook is that, unlike those of other international deadbeats, our debts are denominated in our own currency. Indeed the $60 billion or so that the Japanese kindly had invested in U.S. Treasury securities by the end of last year has already lost a huge chunk of its value in terms of yen.
Whether you come down on the side of Pollyanna or Cassandra probably depends more on psychological predisposition than on economic reasoning. I lean toward Cassandra myself.