Wonder why your pay is going up while your standard of living is going down?

Getting a wee bit anxious about how you'll afford health insurance, college tuition and retirement?

Do your eyes glaze over when you hear people drone on about subprime loans, gross domestic product, and sundry other economic terms?

Jared Bernstein has people like you in mind in his new book, 'Crunch: Why do I Feel so Squeezed? (and Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries).'

While other economists often tilt conservative and use arcane terms and formulas that befuddle rather than clarify, Bernstein tries to explain economic forces in simple, humorous, even poetic terms.

In his introduction, Bernstein describes a woman trying to understand the economic crunch who consults a 1940s-era detective: 'She had a neckline as low as the Nasdaq in '01 …'

Or take one of his haikus sprinkled throughout the book:


Such low, low prices, and yet …

my pay lags behind.

Bernstein says he's writing for the average reader, not for wonks.

'The person I had in mind is someone who is curious and maybe a little bit annoyed, both by the state of the economy and the economic debate,' he says in a phone interview.

Sometimes Bernstein fails to stick to what he does best, using terms like 'etiology' that could make readers stumble. But generally, his down-to-earth tone makes for a pleasant read, particularly for those who don't pore over The Wall Street Journal in the bathtub or spend evenings glued to PBS's Nightly Business Report.

Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal nonprofit that focuses on issues of working families and gets funding from foundations and unions. The Oregon Center for Public Policy, a progressive think tank in Silverton, is sponsoring his local visit.

Bernstein makes no apologies for his progressive views, yet subscribes to some economic tenets that many on the left disdain.

Better education for American workers isn't a cure-all for thriving in the new environment, Bernstein warns: 'Anyone who touts that as the sole solution is misleading.'

Bernstein uses solid data to make his points, such as why the accepted definition of 'poverty' is hopelessly outdated. One graph shows how worker productivity rose in lockstep with incomes from the late 1940s to 1980. But since then, wages haven't reflected the rise in worker productivity, especially in this decade. There's that crunch again.

Bernstein takes issue with Social Security alarmists who fret about the declining number of workers for each retiree. He points out that since workers will have fewer children, the dependency ratio, the share of kids and retirees for each working adult, will stay within its historical range.

Predictably, Bernstein argues that Social Security's funding shortfall can be avoided in part by lifting the tax exemption for incomes above $97,500.

He also has a not-so-radical tonic: Invest some of the government's Social Security funds in stocks. Canada does that, and Oregon led the nation in doing the same with its state pension fund investments.

In his final chapter, Bernstein lays out fixes to what he views as glaring problems in the economy: the 'squeeze' on incomes, immigration, health care, education and globalization.

'We all have the tools to treat these cancerous inequities,' he writes. 'Let's use them now.'

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