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美国中产阶级无计可施-文怡070810043

(2008-10-06 16:57:22)
标签:

经济学

杂谈

分类: 经邦济世

美国中产阶级无计可施

今年是大选年,同时美国经济又有可能陷入衰退、甚至更糟糕的境地。因此,美国政府人士七嘴八舌地讨论一些计划以防范这种危险,这不足为奇。布什总统(President George W. Bush)提出了1500亿美元的一揽子经济刺激计划,所有主要总统候选人也都拿出了类似方案,其中包括削减中产阶级税收、提高基础设施支出等。

本•伯南克(Ben Bernanke)和美联储(Fed)将利率再度下调75个基点。但这些方法都不会有多大作用,因为它们都不是针对美国选民目前最根本的焦虑。这个问题深藏在目前的经济放缓之下,超越了商业循环的范畴。

实际上,中产家庭已经穷其使用了30多年的应对机制,依靠(计入通胀因素)仅比1970年略高一点的中值收入度日。其实,如今男性的工资低于当时的水平:现在,一个30多岁年轻男子的收入比三十年前与他年纪相仿的男子低12%。然而,多年以后的现在,美国中产阶级的生活水平已经超出了其支付能力。尽管收入中值几乎原地不动,中产阶级的生活方式还是日益兴旺。这种情况就要结束了,美国人已开始感觉到了后果。

第一个应对机制是让更多的女性加入带薪工作行列。自1970年以来,家有学龄孩子的美国职业母亲比例几乎翻了一番——从38%升至70%。现在有些父母甚至24小时轮班,一个负责照看孩子,另一个工作。这就是所谓的“Dins家庭”(即“双薪无性家庭”(double income, no sex))

但是,可以继续从事带薪工作的母亲人数已经达到了极限。怎么办呢?我们求助于第二个应对机制。当家庭已经竭尽全力的时候,那就努力坚持得更久一些。与30年前相比,现在的美国人一般每年多工作两周。与任何其它发达国家相比,我们都是名副其实的工作狂,每年比欧洲人多工作350个小时以上,甚至比以勤奋著称的日本人工作时间还长。

不过,我们工作时间的长度也有极限。随着经济上的必要性日益提高,我们求助于第三个应对机制。我们开始借钱,大笔地借钱。由于房价在整个20世纪90年代一路猛涨、2002年到2006年之间甚至涨得更快,我们通过房屋净值贷款(home equity loan),把自己的房子变成了储钱罐。美国人每个季度通过二次抵押与再融资获得近2500亿美元的房屋净值。这几乎占可支配收入的10%。随着信用卡如天赐甘露般倾盆而降,我们购买等离子电视、新家具、休假……

由于美元虚高(因为尽管美国在债务中越陷越深,外国人还是继续持有美元),我们可以从全球其它地方唤取便宜的产品和服务。

然而,这最后一个应对机制也无法再保证我们继续前行了。来钱容易的年代已经结束。随着房产泡沫的破裂,房屋净值正在枯竭。正如信用评级机构穆迪(Moody's)最近公布的数据显示,房屋净值贷款违约已升至10年来最高水平。汽车和信用卡债务紧随其后。2007年上半年,个人破产上升了48%,下半年可能更多,掀起了一波消费者贷款违约的浪潮。与此同时,随着外国人开始转而放弃美元,我们也不再能够获取便宜的外国产品和服务。

简言之,中产阶级所面临的焦虑不只是眼下经济放缓的产物。根本问题始自1970年前后。如果哪位总统候选人想解决这个问题,必须从更宏大的范畴考虑,而不是仅仅考虑为银行和借款人纾困、或者是通过减税和增加支出来刺激经济。

在兴起于30年前的高科技全球经济中,大多数美国人现在仍不算富有。自那时起经济增长的几乎所有好处,都落在了位于最顶端的少数人手中。

承认这一点,并拿出对策,不只是刺激经济、同时也提高工资(比如说通过力度更大的累进式税收、更强大的工会,以及从更长远的角度说,为低收入家庭的孩子提供更好的学校、让他们有更多受高等教育的机会……)——这样的候选人才很有可能赢得美国庞大而日益焦虑的选民。

AMERICA'S MIDDLE CLASSES ARE NO LONGER COPING

It is an election year and the US economy is in peril of falling into recession or worse. Not surprisingly, Washington is abuzz with plans to prevent it. President George W. Bush has proposed a $150bn stimulus package and all the main presidential candidates are offering similar measures, including middle-class tax cuts and increased spending on infrastructure.

Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have reduced interest rates another three-quarters of a point. But none of these fixes will help much because they do not deal with the underlying anxieties now gripping American voters. The problem lies deeper than the current slowdown and transcends the business cycle.

The fact is, middle-class families have exhausted the coping mechanisms they have used for more than three decades to get by on median wages that are barely higher than they were in 1970, adjusted for inflation. Male wages today are in fact lower than they were then: the income of a young man in his 30s is now 12 per cent below that of a man his age three decades ago. Yet for years now, America's middle class has lived beyond its pay cheque. Middle-class lifestyles have flourished even though median wages have barely budged. That is ending and Americans are beginning to feel the consequences.

The first coping mechanism was moving more women into paid work. The percentage of American working mothers with school-age children has almost doubled since 1970 – from 38 per cent to close to 70 per cent. Some parents are now even doing 24-hour shifts, one on child duty while the other works. These families are known as Dins: double income, no sex.

But we reached the limit to how many mothers could maintain paying jobs. What to do? We turned to a second coping mechanism. When families could not paddle any harder, they started paddling longer. The typical American now works two weeks more each year than 30 years ago. Compared with any other advanced nation we are veritable workaholics, putting in 350 more hours a year than the average European, more even than the notoriously industrious Japanese.

But there is also a limit to how long we can work. As the tide of economic necessity continued to rise, we turned to the third coping mechanism. We began to borrow, big time. With housing prices rising briskly through the 1990s and even faster between 2002 and 2006, we turned our homes into piggy banks through home equity loans. Americans got nearly $250bn worth of home equity every quarter in second mortgages and refinancings. That is nearly 10 per cent of disposable income. With credit cards raining down like manna, we bought plasma television sets, new appliances, vacations.

With dollars artificially high because foreigners continued to hold them even as the nation sank deeper into debt, we summoned inexpensive goods and services from the rest of the world.

But this final coping mechanism can no longer keep us going, either. The era of easy money is over. With the bursting of the housing bubble, home equity is drying up. As Moody's reported recently, defaults on home equity loans have surged to the highest level this decade. Car and credit card debt is next. Personal bankruptcies rose 48 per cent in first half of 2007, probably even more in the second half, which means a wave of defaults on consumer loans. Meanwhile, as foreigners begin shifting out of dollars, we will no longer have access to cheap foreign goods and services.

In short, the anxiety gripping the middle class is not simply a product of the current economic slowdown. The underlying problem began around 1970. Any presidential candidate seeking to address it will have to think bigger than bailing out lenders and borrowers, or stimulating the economy with tax cuts and spending increases.

Most Americans are still not prospering in the high-technology, global economy that emerged three decades ago. Almost all the benefits of economic growth since then have gone to a small number of people at the very top.

The candidate who acknowledges this and comes up with ways not just to stimulate the economy but also to boost wages – through, say, a more progressive tax, stronger unions and, over the longer term, better schools for children from lower-income families and better access to higher education – will have a good chance of winning over America's large, and increasingly anxious, voters.

The writer is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is former US secretary of labour and author of ‘Supercapitalism'

 

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