Have We Really Peaked?

The headline in the Washington Post was a little unsettling: Most Americans’ best days are behind them.

Below the headline was a map showing the counties in the nation with the year their median household income (adjusted for inflation) reached its zenith.  The majority of NC counties, like the South, peaked in 1999.

I’ve watched that happen first-hand, right here in Hickory and the Catawba Valley. But it was surprising to see communities we thought were booming – like Raleigh and Charlotte- in the same predicament.

The source being the Washington Post, I confess I felt a bit of skepticism- so I asked the legislative staff to verify. They came back and reported, yes, in 2010, the Wake County (Raleigh) inflation-adjusted median household income was 8% below where it was in 2000. In Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) the drop was even greater: 14%.

While the General Assembly debates spending more taxpayer money for business incentives or expanding Medicaid or taking on debt for road projects, a couple of questions come to mind. Should the state continue taking more money from people that have less?

I’ve learned the hard way that “more” is not much of a goal in any endeavor- including both business and government. And I suspect that may be the lesson before us now.  In most things, you reach a point where you have enough. It’s not just a matter of a reduction in the benefits associated with incremental growth.  In fact, there is a point where “more” actually turns what was a positive experience into something negative (like 2 wives or 12 beers).

Secondly, I wonder about the theory of some historians that human society moves through cycles or seasons and that every 80 years or so we find ourselves in something similar to a “winter” season – when it’s not the right time to either plant or harvest. Winter is not a time for action, it’s a time to rest and think and husband resources and, with the approach of spring, be ready- to take action and grow- like our country did in the boom after World War II.

Just to be clear, I don’t buy the Post headline that the good times are over and it’s all downhill from here.  But also, I do not buy the line that we are on the right track and just a little tweaking will fix whatever ails us. Perhaps, unintentionally, the Post was telling us it is time to pause and to size our appetites (and size our government) to our earnings. We can’t be certain cutting government regulations and taxes will turn around what happened to our family incomes during the last decade-  but we can be certain forcing families who are earning less to pay more is just plain wrong.


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