A job-seeker completes an application at a career fair in Philadelphia in 2013. (Mark Makela/Reuters)
Columnist

A recent cover of the Economist hails the “great jobs boom” across the developed world. Although President Trump claims credit for the good news, the reality is that the boom is global: Two-thirds of developed countries enjoy record high employment among those of working age. Yet even with the global economy at its best, it still doesn’t work for working people, particularly in the United States.

It’s true that the top-line unemployment rate in the United States — 3.6 percent — is the lowest in half a century (although distorted because labor force participation is still depressed) and wages finally have begun to stir. But Trump’s claim that his tax cuts and deregulation policies are the cause of this is laughable. Assessing the 2017 tax cuts, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted that gross domestic product growth in 2018 — 2.9 percent — was virtually the same as the Congressional Budget Office had projected without the tax cuts. Nor was there any “indication of a surge in wages.” Instead, there was — as critics predicted — a record $1 trillion in stock buybacks, as chief executives and investors pocketed the tax giveaways.

Similarly Trump’s deregulation boasts are also, not surprisingly, a stretch. A review by Rutgers University professor Stuart Shapiro concludes that it was “extremely unlikely” that Trump’s deregulation through his first year in office had “any appreciable effect on the economy.” In fact, the states and cities enjoying the greatest jobs boom are largely those in which labor market regulations — hikes in the minimum wage, guarantees of vacation or family leave time, crackdowns on wage theft and more — are proliferating.

Politically, of course, the real causes of job growth don’t really matter. Voters will give Trump credit for the good economy. The real problem is far more fundamental.

Consider millennials in the United States, now approaching middle age. As the Wall Street Journal reports, despite being the best-educated generation in history, “Americans born between 1981 and 1996 have failed to match every other generation of young adults born since the Great Depression. They have less wealth, less property, lower marriage rates and fewer children.” The median wealth of a family headed by someone born in the 1980s is a stunning one-third lower than the level expected compared to previous generations.

Or consider the reality facing workers generally. In the last quarter, labor productivity grew at the highest levels in nearly a decade. But as Vox’s Alexia Fernandez Campbell points out, while employees “were more productive, worked longer hours, and produced more goods and services than they did last year,” their real hourly wages “barely inched up.” Not surprisingly, a record number of U.S. workers went on strikes last year, the most since 1986, despite the decline of the union movement.

Meanwhile, basic costs continue to soar. The left’s call for Medicare-for-all is dismissed because people supposedly love their employer-provided health-care plans. But in the past 12 years, annual deductibles in job-based health plans have nearly quadrupled; they now average more than $1,300. Four in 10 workers say they don’t have enough savings to cover an emergency $400 expense. One in 6 Americans with job-based insurance report that they’ve had to make “difficult sacrifices” to pay for care — wiping out savings, taking extra jobs, cutting back on food, moving in with family or friends. College debt now exceeds credit card and auto loan debt. In short, about 4 in 10 middle-class Americans will live close to or in poverty by the time they reach 65. African Americans and Hispanics fare worse than whites; women still lag behind men. And the existential threat that we know as catastrophic climate change continues to loom larger without being addressed.

What is truly at stake in our politics isn’t whether Trump gets impeached; it is whether democracy can force the changes needed to address these large-scale attacks on working people. The reaction has begun, led initially by the rise of right-wing, nationalist populist movements as personified by Trump. But they offer no answer; instead they use fear and nativism to divide and distract.

Piecemeal reforms, like those offered by former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and other moderate Democrats, won’t get the job done, either. The only possibility is whether a broad progressive movement — whether it’s called democratic socialism, social democracy or progressive capitalism — can force fundamental changes. Such a movement could bring about the public guarantee of basic economic rights (a job, health care, education, retirement security, adequate housing), revived public investment in areas vital to our future (like a Green New Deal), and new rules for markets and corporations that would curb monopoly, crack down on tax avoidance and empower workers. None of this will occur without political reforms to limit the corruptions of big money and entrenched interests.

Will the presidential election in 2020 be the first step down a better path? Trump will seek a second term, arguing that the economy shows he has made America great again. James Carville’s famous memo on the campaign headquarters of the underdog Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign is usually summarized as "It’s the economy, stupid.” Democrats would be well advised to also remember the other two lines in the message: “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”

Read more:

Robert J. Samuelson: An economic mystery: Why is inflation so low?

Elizabeth Bruenig: The battered aspirations of the American working class

Robert J. Shapiro: Don’t be fooled: Working Americans are worse off under Trump