Are Americans benefiting from the strong economy — aside from the rich? A Fed report raises questions.

Amid what is likely to become the longest period of sustained economic growth on record, a new report shows that millions of middle-class and low-income Americans still aren’t on solid enough ground to weather a sustained downturn.

Since the Federal Reserve’s annual report on household well-being began in 2013, the survey (most recently of more than 11,000 Americans) has become a key measure of whether the benefits of the recovery have reached beyond the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Although this year’s report painted a positive picture overall, officials said, it identified underlying fragility and exposed pockets of distress. In line after line, the report lays out the everyday concerns that plague U.S. households.

Almost four in 10 people (39 percent) said they wouldn’t be able to scrape together the cash to meet a $400 emergency expense. Even without any sudden expense, about 17 percent of adults said they would miss a payment on at least one bill during the month surveyed.

.. More than 6 in 10 said losing their job would mean they couldn’t cover three months of expenses, even if they took out loans, sold assets or borrowed from friends and relatives.

.. Only 36 percent said their retirement savings are on track.

.. Almost a quarter of Americans skipped some form of medical care in the past year because they couldn’t afford it. Separately, 1 in 5 faced major, unexpected medical bills. About 4 in 10 of those folks were still carrying debt related to those bills.

.. The survey covers 2018, when the unemployment rate averaged 3.9 percent, the lowest since 1969, and the economy grew 2.9 percent, matching its post-Great Recession high. Average hourly earnings grew 3 percent, easily the fastest rate since the recession’s end. But those figures are broad national averages — if gains are going disproportionately to the wealthy few, trends among the majority of U.S. workers could be missed.

.. Moore has been a mechanic for 40 years. He said these days, customers often have to leave their cars with him until payday rolls around, or until they can scrape together the money.

“I had three jobs this week that I lost because it’s too much money,” Moore said. “They hauled the cars off. They’re not going to fix them.”

“There’s not any extra money laying around for a lot of people,” Moore said. “I get sticker shock adding up tickets sometimes,” he added later. “Everything’s gone up.”

In fact, when his son had to go to the emergency room last year, Moore himself couldn’t cover the $2,000 bill up front. He’s still sending the hospital $100 a month to pay off the bill, he said.

“Another year of economic expansion and the low national unemployment rates did little to narrow the persistent economic disparities by race, education, and geography,” the report’s authors wrote.

In particular, measures of economic distress continue to spotlight black workers and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics. Only 47 percent of black adults rated their local economy as good or excellent in 2018, compared with 68 percent of whites.

Black Americans are less likely to be working and less likely to be satisfied with how many hours they’re getting on the job.

The disparities are sharp even among Americans who attended college. About 28 percent of black people are behind on their student loans, as are 15 percent of Hispanics.

The number for white people is just 7 percent. The gap may be related to access to education — black Americans were more than five times as likely than whites to have attended a for-profit university.

China Hardens Trade Stance as Talks Enter New Phase

Chinese negotiators emboldened by perception U.S. was willing to compromise

The hardened battle lines were prompted by Beijing’s decision to take a more aggressive stance in negotiations, according to the people following the talks. They said Beijing was emboldened by the perception that the U.S. was ready to compromise.

  1. In particular, these people said, Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to cut interest rates was seen in Beijing as evidence that the president thought the U.S. economy was more fragile than he claimed.
  2. Beijing was further encouraged by Mr. Trump’s frequent claim of friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and by Mr. Trump’s praise for Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for pledging to buy more U.S. soybeans.

An April 30 tweet, in which Mr. Trump coupled criticism of Mr. Powell with praise of Chinese economic policy, especially caught the eye of senior officials. “China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates.”

Why would you be constantly asking the Fed to lower rates if your economy is not turning weak,” said Mei Xinyu, an analyst at a think tank affiliated with China’s Commerce Ministry. If the U.S.’s resolve was weakening, the thinking in Beijing went, the U.S. would be more willing to cut a deal, even if Beijing hardened its positions.

That assessment, however, flies in the face of a strong U.S. economy. Gross domestic product in the first quarter rebounded from the end of 2018, with growth clocking in at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 3.2%, up from 2.2% the prior quarter. The jobs report for April, released on Friday, showed the unemployment rate falling to 3.6%, the lowest in nearly 50 years.

But at the same time, China’s economy has stabilized this year following months of weakness. Although China’s exports dropped unexpectedly in April, its first-quarter growth came in at 6.4%, beating market expectations. The generally improving economic picture gave Beijing more confidence in trade talks, as did a recent conference on the country’s vast infrastructure-spending program, called the Belt and Road Initiative, which was attended by about 40 heads of government and state.

Chinese leaders saw the conference turnout “as China has more leverage to improve relations with other countries and with the U.S. business community,” said Brookings Institution China specialist Cheng Li. “It made them play hardball.”

If China misread the signals—and vice versa—it wouldn’t be the first time.

The history of U.S.-China trade negotiations is filled with misunderstandings, as the two nations, with very different political systems, struggle to figure out each other’s intentions.

.. In another apparent sign of mixed signals, Trump administration officials had thought they had made it clear that they were weary of negotiations and that it was time for Beijing to make specific commitments to change laws, including adding protections for intellectual property and barring the forced transfer of U.S. technology.

As talks resume Thursday, one big question mark is whether China will agree to U.S. demands for changes in Chinese law to implement the trade deal. Beijing maintains this would impinge on Chinese sovereignty and take too long to implement, but Beijing had made similar commitments in prior trade deals, including those it signed to join the WTO in 2001.

U.S. officials say Beijing has failed to make good on those commitments, while China has promised to further liberalize its economy.

“The U.S. is correct to seek a multiprong approach of not relying solely on commitments but also actually changes to the laws, so as to ensure Chinese leadership intentions are fully conveyed down to all local levels of government,” said Harvard Law Professor Mark Wu.

Trump’s immigration policies have been a failure. Neither he nor Democrats have much of a solution to the current problem.

For the president, immigration is a proxy for many issues — national security, domestic security, cultural change, nationalism, even nostalgia. The president’s rhetoric inflames the left as much as it energizes his loyalists, which is exactly his purpose. Democrats oppose Trump’s policies and cry foul when he seeks to blame them. They also point out that Trump tried to use immigration during the closing weeks of last year’s midterm elections, only to see his party lose its majority in the House.

Immigration will continue to animate Trump’s core supporters and will likely be one of two pillars of his reelection campaign. The other is the economy, the issue he will look to as a bridge to other voters whose support he will need to win what looks to be an extremely competitive election. Here, too, the Democrats appear to be struggling to find their own voice on what should be a central part of a presidential campaign message.

.. The new Battleground Poll by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners under the auspice of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service shows the president holding a clear advantage over Democrats in Congress on which party people trust to deal with the jobs and with the economy. Democrats need to narrow or reverse that margin.

As an insurance policy, Trump has already gone on the attack against the Democrats on the economy, playing the “socialism” card. He has seized on Democratic proposals for a Medicare-for-all health-care plan and a Green New Deal, both of which in their most expansive iterations would require a heavy dose of government intervention and regulation, warning of dire consequences to the economy.

Candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have economic messages built around populist us vs. them themes, including attacks on big corporations and wealthy individuals. Their platforms contain the broad promise to rebalance the economic scales in favor of middle- and working-class Americans, in part through a variety of new taxes on those corporations and wealthy individuals. Warren in particular has offered a fresh list of detailed policies.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates favor new taxes on the wealthy. But at this stage, most haven’t really said how they would pay for what they propose. The Democrats are often more focused on other issues than on the centrality of the economy in the lives of voters. Another sign of a lack of consensus in the party is the inability of House Democrats to agree on the outlines of a new budget.

The president has begun to set the themes for his reelection campaign. Democrats have vowed not to make the mistakes in 2016 of focusing too much on Trump’s fitness to be president. But they can’t ignore legitimate questions about how they would govern — or how they will credibly respond to the president’s attacks on his issues of choice.

Seven Fixes for American Capitalism

Ideas from the Right, the Left, and across the Atlantic to mend what’s broken in our economy.

Antitrust Pivot

Many of the U.S.’s biggest economic ills—rising inequality, stagnant wages, low productivity growth—stem in large measure from corporate consolidation and monopoly power run amok. That’s the message from a new breed of policy wonk urging a return to the trustbusting days of the early 20th century.

The movement—labeled the New Brandeis School by its proponents and derided as Hipster Antitrust by its critics—is looking to ditch the Chicago School approach that’s dominated antitrust enforcement since the late 1970s. The Chicago School hews to what’s known as the consumer-welfare standard, which finds mergers anticompetitive only if they raise prices.

The new model takes its inspiration from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who emphasized the need to restrain big companies and the concentration of economic power. Lina Khan helped galvanize the movement with a 2017 paper she wrote as a law student at Yale that made the case that Amazon.com Inc. is a threat to competition, even though it’s lowered some prices for consumers.

Any ambitious government-led project to reshape the U.S. economy usually runs into the same objection: We can’t afford it. One school of economic thought says that’s all wrong.

Modern Monetary Theory, a once-fringe set of ideas now getting some mainstream attention, says governments borrowing in their own currency have more room to spend than they think. The U.S., for example, can run deficits without having to worry about going bust, because it creates the dollars in the first place. The real constraint only kicks in when there’s too much spending relative to a limited supply of goods and services—in other words, when inflation spikes. And there’s been little sign of that in America for decades.

MMTers argue that their system isn’t so radical; it’s the way things already work, at least some of the time. Presidents, including the current one, haven’t balked at measures to boost the military or cut taxes, even when the resulting deficits run into the hundreds of billions. And emergencies, such as the 2008 financial meltdown, typically push concerns about balanced budgets deep into the background.

Now there’s a different sort of emergency on the horizon: climate change. Since the threat is arguably greater than economic depression or even war, it requires action on a suitably vast scale, argue Democrats who’ve picked up on the issue.

And MMT offers a key to unlock the financing. That’s why freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the first U.S. politicians to talk publicly about MMT, is also at the forefront of the drive for a Green New Deal. The maximal version of that program includes shifting the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy within 10 years. If that wasn’t ambitious enough, the plan also calls for the government to guarantee a job for everyone who wants one—an MMT favorite that’s also a throwback to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“Clearly, the environment matters more than entries on balance sheets,” says Randall Wray, a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College and one of MMT’s most prominent proponents. “The environmental thing is real. It’s not financial.”

MMT’s detractors say government spending on that scale could trigger the kind of inflation that would wreck the whole economy. America’s national debt has already ballooned since the Great Recession, they warn, and adding more will erode the country’s creditworthiness and undermine the dollar’s role in global finance.

While those warnings are still frequently heard, there are signs that they’re losing their impact as the debate leans left. Several renowned economists who aren’t MMTers have recently tried to downplay the risks attached to deficits and debt. They include Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, and Obama administration heavyweights Larry Summers and Jason Furman. Bank of England chief Mark Carney has made the case that action on climate change represents an economic opportunity, not a burden.

Ocasio-Cortez didn’t manage to garner enough Democratic support for her first attempt at actual legislation, a proposal to set up a Green New Deal committee. But there’s broad sympathy for the idea in principle, including among several of the party’s presidential candidates, and many of them have also endorsed a jobs guarantee. —Katia Dmitrieva

Tech to the Rescue

Amazon.com Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos wishes there were a trillion human beings in the solar system. With room for that many people, there would be “a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts,” he told the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., in September. The world’s richest man is funneling $1 billion or more a year into a company, Blue Origin, that he hopes will help make extraterrestrial settlement a reality, creating places to live for all those Einsteins and Mozarts.

Bezos and others argue that innovation is the essential ingredient in human betterment. They have a point. Life would be pretty awful without the advances made by past generations, such as indoor plumbing, vaccines, refrigeration, and telephones. Bezos even asserts that freedom itself, not just material well-being, depends on technological progress: “I don’t even think stasis is compatible with liberty,” he told the Washington audience.

In the view of the tech-to-the-rescue crowd, innovation can solve just about every problem humanity faces. Global warming can be fixed with better electric cars, solar cells, wind turbines, and batteries. Income inequality can be solved by educating or retraining workers for the high-tech jobs of the future.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank founded in 2006 to propagate this philosophy, argues that using antitrust law to break up or discipline the big technology companies can backfire, discouraging innovation and harming consumers. Robert Atkinson, president and founder of the ITIF, co-wrote a 2018 book with Michael Lind called Big Is Beautiful: Debunking the Myth of Small Business.

The techies welcome a prominent role for government in paying for education and conducting or supporting research and development. But the movement is split on trade. The nationalists want to keep the U.S. in the tech vanguard and are willing to resort to tariffs and subsidies to preserve its dominance. The globalists, including some heads of multinational companies that earn lots of their profits abroad, are happy to see other countries advance technologically, figuring that the benefits of breakthroughs—say, a cure for cancer—will be shared by all of humanity regardless of their origin.

The common theme is that prosperity depends on a robust tech sector. “We’re in a 10-year productivity depression” that’s hurting living standards, says Atkinson. “Tech is really the only way we’re going to raise productivity growth.” —Peter Coy

Tariff Truthers

If there’s one thing most economists around the world today can agree on, it’s that tariffs are bad. Protect one domestic industry with an import tax, and you hurt a swath of others. Tariffs reduce choices for consumers and push up prices for goods. They stifle competition and deter innovation. And they invite other countries to retaliate, leading to the sort of tit-for-tat behavior that’s left U.S. soybean farmers watching crops once destined for China rot in their fields.

Libertarianism

Devotees of small government were stirred by candidate Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” and pull U.S. troops out of foreign quagmires. But President Trump, with his tariffs and deficits, has proved to be “the opposite of a libertarian,” the Libertarian Party declared in March.

Still, the free-market purists aren’t giving up the fight. One of their bugbears is the Federal Reserve and its cheap money—a distortion of the market’s natural efficiency, according to Austrian economist and libertarian idol Friedrich Hayek. When Ron Paul, America’s highest-profile libertarian, ran for president in 2012, he pushed for the Fed’s abolition and a return to the gold standard. “If you want to restrain government, you restrain the power to create money,” he said. “That’s what gold does.”

The Fed can probably rest easy. Americans aren’t exactly clamoring for a return to gold, while hyperinflation and other disasters predicted by libertarians in the easy-money decade since 2008 haven’t come to pass.

Some libertarian ideas are finding a larger audience. Among them are the call for stripping back zoning rules, because they limit the construction of affordable housing, and their criticism of patents that lock in profits for Big Tech or Pharma and licensing requirements that insulate professionals like doctors from competition. A common theme of such critiques—that the economy is rigged in favor of big and established actors—commands growing support among mainstream economists.

And beyond the realms of U.S. policy, the world is evolving in ways that give libertarians hope. Those who deplore the “tyranny” of central banks are rejoicing at the explosion of cryptocurrencies. (The Libertarian Party accepts donations in Bitcoin.) Recreational marijuana use is already legal in 10 states and backed by more than 6 in 10 Americans, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.

Paul, who outperformed most expectations during his own tilt at the presidency, says a popular Libertarian candidate could well emerge in 2020. It’s a stretch to say he’s cheerful about the wider outlook, though. “It’s a bubble economy in many, many different ways, and it’s going to come unglued,” he told the Washington Examiner. —Andrew Mayeda