Economists may not be very good at understanding the economy, but they are quite good at finding ways to keep themselves employed, generally at very high wages. The Washington Post treated us to one such make work project as it reported on a change in consumer psychology due to the recession that has left:

"Americans of all ages less willing to inject their money back into the economy in the form of vacations, clothing and nights out.

"It’s a sharp contrast to the 1990s, when consumers spent freely as their wages rose robustly, and the 2000s, when Americans funded more lavish lifestyles with easy access to credit cards and home-equity loans."

 

Really? That sounds like a startling development. Let's see if we can find it in the data.

cons gdp

The chart shows consumption as a percentage of GDP. I went back to the late fifties so folks can see the longer term picture. People are spending far more today relative to the size of the economy than they did in the sixties, seventies, eighties, or even nineties. In fact, consumer expenditures are higher now relative to the size of economy than they were in the housing bubble days.

So, let's ask about that psychology story. Apparently the concern is that we fell from a ratio of 68.8 percent in the first quarter of last year all the way down to 68.6 percent in the most recent quarter. My guess is that modest decline is best explained by unusually bad weather in the first quarter that discouraged people from shopping and going out for meals. Also, extraordinarily strong car sales in the second half of 2014 probably let to some falloff in the first quarter since people who buy a new car in the fall generally don't buy another one in the winter.

But hey, I don't want to see a lot of unemployed economists. There should be lots of work in looking for a plunge in consumption that isn't there.