by Robert Reich
The Institute of Supply Management’s non-manufacturing index fell to a four-month low in April (53.5, down from 56 in March – still positive territory but just barely). New orders dropped to their lowest level in six months.
That doesn’t bode well, especially when combined with other recent data. The Commerce Department reports that the economy as a whole has slowed from the last quarter of 2011 when it was expanding at an annual rate of 3 percent, to 2.2 percent for the first quarter of this year. And last month’s unemployment report showing only 120,000 new jobs in March was downright alarming.
What’s going on? Europe is sliding into recession, and gas prices are still high. But the real problem lies closer to home. Cuts in government spending are reducing domestic demand precisely at the time when consumers are reaching the end of their ropes and can’t spend more.
Consumers did all the spending they could in the first quarter. Household purchases increased 2.9 percent between January and March. That was the biggest increase since the last quarter of 2010.
Absent real wage gains, that spending pace can’t possibly continue. Consumer savings are down and their debt is up. Consumer confidence dropped last week to a two-month low.
The only people left spending are in the top 5 percent, whose stock portfolios have been doing so well they feel even richer. But the top 5 percent can’t pull the entire economy out of the doldrums. Besides, if demand continues to slide the stock market will follow.
The real problem is political, not economic. Republicans in Congress insist on cutting public spending even before the economy has mended.
Conspiracy theorists might think Republicans want the economy to be so bad by Election Day that Obama is swept out of office, along with most congressional Democrats.
Paranoid double-conspiracy theorists might come to the opposite conclusion: Democrats are allowing Republicans to do this because they want Romney elected and Republicans in charge next year as the economy slides into a terrible recession due to far larger spending cuts already scheduled to kick in then, as well as increased taxes on the middle class.
Under President Romney and a Republican congress there will be no escape from this downward spiral; fiscal hawks and right-wing government-haters will be in control. As a result of this nightmarish mess, Republicans will be booted out of office for a generation.