New ‘new normal’ demands new thinking

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I am staggered by the number of “Now Hiring, Inquire Within” signs I’ve been seeing everywhere lately.

Not too long ago we were mired in the Great Recession. But that “new normal,” as our pessimistic and foolishly self-fulfilling prophesying former president described it, has been replaced by a vibrant turnaround of the economy that has most people glad to be alive. Except, of course, the politicians and pundits who try to use the economy to divide us. And get votes.

Times are good right now, folks. Workers in the trenches, in the cubicles and on the assembly lines know productivity is up. The Maine, New England and American economies are chugging full steam ahead. It’s time to appreciate it. It’s time to stop listening to economy-deniers who think America’s best days are behind her and that income inequality is an inherent trait of capitalism rather than a personal choice to dream smaller.

In 2007, exactly 10 years ago, we were flying high. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was above 14,000. The Nasdaq was at about 5,500. Then the bottom fell out. The Dow dropped to around 6,500 the next summer, people were losing their homes and the hiring signs were gone. Most people held onto their homes and jobs but were worried their fiscal ruin could come at any time. It was tough. Adults who lived through it finally understood why the children of the Depression couldn’t spend a dime without worrying where the next one would come from.

But, fortunately, a decade later we are booming once again. (I’m knocking on wood as I write this, don’t worry.) The stock market, which holds many Americans’ retirement hopes, is breaking records almost daily. And, more importantly, employment is skyrocketing. This new “new normal” hit me the other day driving north on Route 302 in North Windham. There were hiring signs at three businesses in a row: Wendy’s, Sebago Lake Automotive and Sherwin-Williams. A short distance past the paint store, another hiring sign was up at Bob’s Seafood. It’s not just Windham; the signs are up all over Maine. Manufacturers, restaurants, schools – they’re all hiring.

According to the most recent Maine Department of Labor statistics released Sept. 15, the state’s unemployment rate for August was below 4 percent, down from about 10 percent in 2010. The jobs figures are interesting, and worth a deeper look at Cumberland County leads the state with 2.5 percent unemployment. Knox County, Sagadohoc and York counties are tied at 2.6 percent. Remote Washington County was last at 4.7 percent, still not bad compared to 10 years ago.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance are at about 2,000 in 2017, compared with almost 6,000 in 2009. Continued claims are at 10,000 this year compared with about 30,000 in 2009. These are signs that bode well for our future since a prosperous workforce not reliant on welfare is key to personal pride and community health.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of media coverage regarding the excellent state of Maine’s or the nation’s fiscal health. I keep hearing politicians and pundits complaining that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. David Brooks’ recent column in the New York Times acknowledges this disconnect. He says political extremes on both the right and left – primarily the populist wings represented by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – are adhering to a narrative that says middle- and lower-class incomes are stagnant at best and that the rich are holding all the cards and unwilling to share. This tired line of thinking – and politicking – can be easily refuted by census figures, Brooks notes.

The column, titled “The Economy Isn’t Broken,” flips the tables by quoting 2015 and 2016 data showing the poor and middle class are earning significantly more. Median incomes (i.e., the middle class) rose 5.2 percent in 2015, the fastest surge since the census bureau began keeping records in the 1960s, he says. Delving deeper, income for single women rose 8.7 percent that year; Hispanics’ income rose 6.1 percent and immigrants’ income rose a whopping 10.1 percent. Also, distribution of income (as socialists like Bernie Sanders like to fixate on) actually rose 3 percent for the poorest fifth of Americans in 2015. And the poverty rate declined 1.2 percent, the steepest decline since 1999, Brooks reports. Similar trends continued in 2016.

Right now, the economy is booming and most pundits can’t seem to handle the good news, continuing to look for negatives. It’s as if they are stuck in Great Recession-era thinking. The data speak for themselves, and it’s time we listen to cold hard facts rather than politicians who divide for political gain.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.