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After his last clunker attempting to debunk claims of a U.S. employment recovery led by lousy jobs, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson owed us a good piece. I’m pleased to say he’s delivered with this morning’s effort examining the roots of the consumer caution witnessed since the Great Recession ended.

First, however, let’s specify that “caution” is a relative concept here. Yes, Americans are spending much less of their income these days than they did during the bubble decade – when it hit all-time lows. In fact, in July, 2005, the personal savings rate, which measures that relationship, sank to 1.9 percent, and some news reports back in those days said that it actually went negative that whole year (though it seems that figure has been revised). All the same, even the 1.9 percent figure showing up in the government’s tables now is much lower than the 5.6 percent for last month reported this morning by the Commerce Department.

Yet although it’s clear that savings have been growing on a monthly basis since late 2013, they’re still not close to their highs earlier in the recovery, when the rate regularly hit high single digits. And for decades until the last massive spending and housing bubble, high single-digit savings rates were the American norm.  In other words, the nation knew how to expand the economy in ways other than launching shopping sprees.

Nonetheless, since U.S. growth is still so spending-heavy, any sign of slackening is at least a short-term cause for concern. And Samuelson’s column today presented a great explanation. On top of still being burdened by accumulated debts and understandably gun-shy after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Americans are facing a labor market in which employers increasingly treat them as more disposable than ever before. Principally, more and more businesses are looking at their employees as variable costs, which they can and should reduce whenever possible even in normal times to boost profits, rather than as fixed costs, which they’re stuck with except when economic conditions worsen significantly.

The resulting move toward using temporary workers has lowered employers’ costs both by giving them more flexibility and by enabling them to use more workers who can’t command significant benefits. But as Samuelson observes, these trends also creates much more economic insecurity for those workers, and logically a greater reluctance to spend.

In addition, Samuelson points out, this insecurity is being reinforced by ever more flexible compensation practices. Fewer and fewer workers are earning wages and salaries that are regularly and predictably increased (when possible via some combination of their bargaining power and their employers’ finances). Compensation increases that are handed out increasingly consist of various one-time payments that don’t need to be added to base wage and salary structures, and therefore can be withdrawn at the drop of a hat.

I’d just add two points. First, it looks very much like increasingly flexible employment and pay practices by business are showing up in statistics on how much Americans are earning. According to a recent major study from JPMorgan Chase, between October, 2012 and December of last year, 84 percent of Americans saw their incomes change by more than five percent month-to-month. Even year-to-year, when smaller fluctuations would be the norm, 70 percent of Americans still experienced such large income swings.

Even more noteworthy, 26 percent of the 2.5 million Americans examined by JPMorgan Chase saw their incomes rise or fall (mainly rise, fortunately) by more than 30 percent between 2013 and 2014. Forty-four percent experienced swings of between five and 30 percent. And this volatility was somewhat greater among higher income Americans than among lower.

Second, although U.S. businesses may see their workers are increasingly disposable, the American economy can’t afford nowadays to see consumers – most of whom are workers – in this dismissive light. Indeed, as I’ve just written, personal consumption is just about as great a share of the economy these days as it was during the bubble decade.

Combine an economy that remains consumption-heavy with income sources that are becoming less and less reliable, and it’s no mystery why what meager growth the nation can still generate remains so greatly fueled by ever greater indebtedness – and why the Federal Reserve is so reluctant to end America’s addiction to easy money.

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