For the first time in more than half a century, "the average American is both earning less and worth less than four years earlier," The New York Times reported last June. Total household net worth is nearly 7 percent below what it had been in 2007, the Federal Reserve estimated then. Per capita income in 2008 was $40,947. It rose to $41,560 in 2011 (1.5 percent). But because inflation rose more than that, purchasing power declined.
What have been hard times for most Americans have been boom times for the federal government. Since FY 2008, spending has risen 25 percent.
And good times for federal employees. Their pay and benefit packages averaged $126,141 in 2010, double the private sector average of $62,757, according to data collected by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In 2000, federal employees received "only" 66 percent more in total compensation. Through 2010 (the last year for which BEA has published data), the compensation of government workers continued to rise more than twice as fast as for workers in the private sector. This despite the fact they work nearly one month less per year, according to the Heritage Foundation.
The budget sequester that began March 1 nominally will reduce spending by $85 billion (2.4 percent) through Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. The actual reduction will be only about half that, because most agencies have on hand funds unspent from earlier years.
Federal spending has doubled since FY 2000, so you wouldn't think a cut of 1.2 percent would cause much hardship -- especially since even with the sequester, the government is projected to spend more this fiscal year than last.
The National Institutes of Health is spending $1.5 million to study why lesbians get fat, the National Science Foundation $325,000 to build a robot squirrel. The EPA gave China $141,000 to study swine manure. In hard times like these, most of us would consider such expenditures to be of dubious value.
None of these is among the nearly 17,000 examples of wasteful spending that inspectors general of the various federal agencies have identified. The IG recommendations pretty much are restricted to clear-cut examples of duplication, waste and fraud. Implementing them would save taxpayers at least $67 billion, without hurting people who depend on government services.
Which is, I suspect, why they haven't been. President Barack Obama is predicting catastrophe if the budget cuts under sequestration actually are made. He wants to raise taxes instead. So he's making sequester cuts as visible and painful as he can.
None is more visible than canceling White House tours. This will save about $2 million through the end of the fiscal year, the Secret Service says.
This makes sixth graders at St. Paul's Lutheran school in Waverly, Iowa, sad. "The White House is our house; please let us visit," they begged the president in a video.
Are there other ways in which the White House might have saved $2 million?
• Federal workers and retirees owe $3.5 billion in back taxes, the IRS says. An astounding $833,000 is owed by just 36 senior officials on President Obama's executive office staff. If "everybody should pay their fair share," why haven't they?
• Mr. Obama has a larger staff than President George W. Bush did and pays them more. Nearly a third of the 457 people on the White House staff -- which includes three calligraphers -- now earn six figures.
• Taxpayers spent $1.4 billion last year for the president's staff and to house, entertain and fly around the country the president and his family, said author Robert Keith Gray. The royal family cost taxpayers in Britain just $57.8 million.
The president's annual vacation in Hawaii cost taxpayers about $4 million, the Hawaii Reporter estimated. His golf outing with Tiger Woods last month cost more than $1 million, according to Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. If the Obamas would forgo the vacation they're planning for Martha's Vineyard in August, that would save enough to keep the tours running.
"President Obama has spent far more lavishly on White House state dinners than previous chief executives, including nearly $1 million on a 2010 dinner for Mexico's president," the Washington Examiner reported.
Only the peasants must tighten their belts.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1476).