The New York Times recently reported that the America no longer ranks No. 1 globally in middle-class wealth. And the World Bank said that China would likely surpass the United States as the world's biggest economy this year.
Should we hold a moment of silence for the end of the American Century? Are we headed for second-class status?
A hard look at the numbers - and the assumptions behind them - casts serious doubt on such gloomy propositions.
The New York Times used information from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), a project that compares disposable income around the world. These data, the Times reported, show that "while the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers ... across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades."
For example, "After tax middle-class incomes in Canada - substantially behind in 2000 - now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans."
What the Times did not say is that over the past 30 years a rising part of total employee income in the United States has come from evermore costly fringe benefits not reflected in disposable income, particularly the value of employer-provided health insurance. A review of the LIS data definitions appears to confirm that such non-disposable, but real, income is not counted. If not, the data cannot provide an accurate assessment of American middle class incomes.
The notion advanced by the World Bank that China might have the world's largest economy by the end of the year also requires a close look. The bank bases its projection on a comparison of 2011 national incomes measured with a technique called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).
Real goods and services that trade across country borders - such as basic commodities, basic materials such as steel and manufactured goods - are priced by the prevailing exchange rate. By this measure, China's economy in 2011 was less than half the size of the U.S. economy, $7.3 trillion versus $15.5 trillion for the United States according to the World Bank's accounts.
But the expenses of life - food, lodging, transportation, locally produced goods - are much cheaper in China than here. PPP attempts to adjust for this difference, using the U.S. economy's purchasing power as the standard. According to the World Bank, in 2011 China's Gross Domestic Product in PPP was $13.5 trillion, not far behind the U.S. The bank thinks China's higher growth rate means it will overtake the U.S. in PPP this year.
However, at the normal exchange rate, which counts when measuring national power, China will continue to lag far behind the U.S. for years to come.
In any event, the 28 nations of the European Union had the world's largest GDP, both by the exchange rate system and PPP in 2011 according to World Bank figures, so the U.S. was already No. 2 behind them.
On the other hand, one could add the figures for Canada, Mexico and the United States on the reasonable premise that the North American Free Tree Agreement has created a single economy on our continent. And on that measure, it is the world's largest economy by a large margin.
So don't give up hope for a brighter American economic future.
But don't give up, either, on urging our elected officials in Washington to finally start making the difficult decisions required to assure our nation's long-term fiscal - and thus, economic - viability.
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