Puget Sound region's strengths are prime targets for other regions looking to grow out of recession.
I remember the sepia-toned days of 2007, when “the new normal” was the language of real-estate promoters meant to reassure us about the future of housing prices.
That turned out to be as comforting as Herbert Hoover’s using “depression” to head off use of the word “panic” after 1929. Now new normal is a ubiquitous phrase meant to explain a post-crash economy.
It’s also contentious. For example, Bill Gross and Mohamed El-Erian of the huge investment firm Pimco have said it will indicate American decline and tough times. This drives bulls crazy.
At a recent conference in Sydney, Australia, billionaire money manager Ken Fisher retorted, “It’s the same stupid old normal we’ve always had. We’ve got a great future,” reported Bloomberg.
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Maybe this is true from Fisher’s lofty seat. Not so much for the rest of us. Things have definitely changed from the bubble boom of the 2000s. We’re on the other side of a crash of historic size, and the road ahead, to use the words of a prominent local author, doesn’t look pretty.
The Great Recession and the federal responses to it have left the very rich richer, the very big companies and banks bigger still and the most concentrated industries even more so.
Among these are companies that have found ways to do much more with less — or at least with fewer American employees — so they are sitting on healthy balance sheets, plenty of cash and cheaply borrowed funds. But few are hiring or investing in American plants.
The immense set of industries built around housing isn’t coming back as before, and nobody knows what will replace it as a means for cloaking the decline of American manufacturing and stagnation of wages. No broad-based bubble is likely to come along anytime soon.
What remains, including exports, is not enough to make up for the lost output, much of it an illusion, from the housing/finance boom.
That leaves capital looking more to Asia and other developing countries to achieve ever-rising growth multiples. For the first time in more than a century, nobody expected America to lead the world out of recession and it didn’t. China is expanding while the U.S. economy struggles.
This is where we stand. It’s a place where many of the bets made during the boom have yet to unwind and debt is still high. Political paralysis ensures that major public investments can’t be made that would create jobs, repay their costs, enhance competitiveness and address climate change or resource competition and costs.
It’s where state and local government fiscal crises continue to hold back recovery. Small business and startups struggle for capital. The costs of large military commitments hang over the economy.
And most of all, the nation faces a long, devastating bout of high unemployment with no quick end.
These realities point to two large and destabilizing themes.
First, America has reached a big divide. We’re not all moving in the same direction. To take one example, we have a substantial minority of long-term unemployed, and some middle-age workers may never find work again.
Also, as part of income inequality not seen since the 1920s, most wage earners struggle to maintain growth in their pay, even as the rich get richer.
Second, without a dynamic economy with growth based on real productive activity and spread widely, a zero-sum game begins. Among other things, this can be deftly exploited by corporations to get what they want from governments, whatever the consequences to states and localities.
For Seattle and the Puget Sound region, we were fortunate enough to enter the storm with a very diverse economy. Metros such as ours are doing better.
This was a come-as-you-are recession, so a Las Vegas, so dependent on housing, has been decimated. We came with many strengths, not least a culture of innovation, software and gaming sector, and links to an Asia that is growing again.
But the zero-sum game means every state will try to lure away our existing assets, or bleed away job growth as employers branch out from this region, as Boeing did with the North Charleston, S.C., 787 factory.
So new? Maybe not. This hasn’t been anything like normal since the 1930s. Unfortunately, it will be with us for a long time.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org