Lost Decade Narrative Picks Up Steam, NYT Worries About Another

In December, NDN made the decision that the most appropriate term to describe the last decade was as a lost decade for everyday Americans. I blogged on this topic on December 3 and published a white paper on December 17 entitled, A Lost Decade for Everyday Americans.

Since that time, the lost decade narrative has been discussed in a variety of other sources. On Saturday, Neil Irwin in the Washington Post covered the lack of job growth over the last decade:

It was, according to a wide range of data, a lost decade for American workers. The decade began in a moment of triumphalism -- there was a current of thought among economists in 1999 that recessions were a thing of the past. By the end, there were two, bookends to a debt-driven expansion that was neither robust nor sustainable.

There has been zero net job creation since December 1999. No previous decade going back to the 1940s had job growth of less than 20 percent. Economic output rose at its slowest rate of any decade since the 1930s as well.

Middle-income households made less in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999 -- and the number is sure to have declined further during a difficult 2009. The Aughts were the first decade of falling median incomes since figures were first compiled in the 1960s.

Paul Krugman called the decade a “Big Zero,” and yesterday, the New York Times editorialized on the need for the next decade to avoid looking like Japan’s Lost Decade and worried that not enough is being done to avert such a scenario. 

Thankfully, 2009 ended better than it began. Economists talk about green shoots of recovery taking hold. Consumer confidence has improved. Equity markets have soared. But for all the progress, the American economy remains extremely vulnerable.

To understand those economic risks, it is worth considering Japan’s experience in the 1990s. A bursting housing bubble there sparked a banking crisis that was followed by a decade of economic stagnation.

The Japanese government lacked the resolve to do what was necessary. It failed to fix its banks and stopped its early fiscal stimulus before recovery had taken hold, leaving the economy all too vulnerable to outside shocks, including the Asian currency crisis and the dot-com collapse in 2001. Japan’s annual growth rate — which had averaged 4 percent since 1973 — slowed to less than 1 percent, on average, from 1992 to 2003.

While obvious, it bears repeating that American economic policy must, first, account for fact that the last decade was already lost for everyday Americans, and, second, do everything to avoid another one. The economic, social, and political consequences of back-to-back lost decades would be catastrophic, and such a scenario is a legitimate possibility.