While the political and business communities both benefit from and worry about the continued acceleration of current U.S. economic growth, the people who ultimately control it, the consumers, would actually benefit from keeping the rate down.

The economy is expected to have closed out 2014 with a growth rate of 2.2 percent. The happy news for the White House (although a trifle late considering the midterm elections outcome) and the business community was that the economy expanded 3.9 percent in the third quarter. While the rate is expected to fall off slightly when the fourth quarter results are announced later this month, both quarters would be enough to balance the negative numbers of the first quarter. As a result of this latest information, economic forecasts have been adjusted and the expectation for this coming year is that growth will accelerate to 3 percent.

Normally, this sort of news should be greeted with enthusiasm or at least some sense of relief, since it has been a grind for most Americans since the 2008 recession began. As expected, consumers voiced positive sentiments in year-end surveys. These sentiments were reinforced by the rapid drop in oil prices and respectable declines in unemployment claims. Holiday retail sales, forecast to increase by 4 percent from the previous year, matched expectations.


It is always a risk to ascribe a thought process to the population at large, but the collective mind might want to curb its enthusiasm because this time around consumers would be well-served to continue exercising buying restraint and restricting their buying habits to those used over the past six years. Why? The answer is quite simple: They will lose money if they don't.

Middle-class Americans have experienced a decline in real income of 5 percent (income adjusted for inflation) over the past five years as most all of the economic gains have gone to the wealthy. While there was some indication in the personal income data for November that the latest job hiring is being done with better pay (0.4 percent versus 0.1 percent or zero in previous months), there has been little disposition for employers to increase pay. In fact, employers are already voicing wide sentiments that increases in the minimum wage that are taking place in 21 states will be passed along as higher prices to consumers. Such increases will do a suitable job of offsetting whatever income growth might otherwise take place. Wage increases over the past five years have failed to keep pace with increases in food, rents, education and healthcare.

Slow growth will not preclude those who want to work from gaining employment. Consider the following: It takes 80,000 new jobs per month of new hiring to keep up with population growth. That means in 2014, of the 2.65 million new hires, just under 1 million were attributed to that requirement, which means that over 1.75 million were a result of the economic recovery. If that trend is an indicator, what politicians and business consider slow growth is a misnomer. If the economy continues to grow at that rate, the country will reach full employment within a year and half and three to four years (if part-time and discouraged workers are factored into the equation).

While no one wants to deprive workers from gaining employment, consumers are advised to consider that full employment will bring with it inflation pressures, higher interest rates and more pressure on living standards. Moving more slowly toward full employment will restrain price increases. If done in an organized fashion, it could actually result in deflation. Deflation in the face of stagnant wages actually means an increase in purchasing power or real income.

Since business has shifted its focus from stewards for their employees to exploiting them with work rules designed by corporate oriented legislators, the only true defense that middle-class Americans have is pricing discipline. What politicians and businessmen call "slow growth" actually means restraints on exploitation. Slow growth reinforces higher levels of competition with less ability to jack prices; it means a less robust stock market, more pressure on governments to create efficiencies, more pressure to build infrastructure, more pressure for education reforms and acting in support of the 130 million working Americans who are not sharing in the current cycle of economic growth.

The best example of how this concept works is the latest decrease in oil prices. If Americans continue to seek fuel economy, if they actively buy from the low-priced providers, they will have reaped a real income increase without pay raises. If you do the math, it becomes clear that average Americans are experiencing a 3 percent growth in income by simply not having to spend the extra money to support higher prices. By the same token, if beef prices rise by 30 percent, the smart move is to switch to lower-cost meats or less meat. Reduced demand will bring prices down. If prices remain stable or even start going down (deflation), it will bring quick government response in the way of stimulus or pressure on businesses to hire, pay more and for banks to lend. Deflation, after all, would mean that government debt would have to be repaid in dollars that are more valuable then when they were borrowed.

The collective mindset of the country's middle class would be well-served if it remained restrained in its spending habits. This time around, it will be easier for most folks to see the wisdom in restraint since the housing market has only made a modest recovery (certainly not enough to allow for the hollowing out of equity through more borrowing); inflation in many of the core prices like insurance, education, healthcare, day-care, appliances and food has not abated; there are no wage increases to look forward to and there are pitifully few additional hours that can be added to most workweeks.

Wisdom is not always accorded to the masses. However, it is beginning to seep into the public consciousness that American workers have been given a raw deal for the past 30 years. While most of them do not pay strict attention to the goings on in Washington, the arrival of the Republican majorities and the centrist proclivities of the current administration with regard to business interests will surely reinforce the isolation they should feel. Republicans, through the recently passed spending bill, have already managed to extend protection to the drug industry from negotiations over the sale of drugs to Medicare recipients; restrictions on derivative trading have been compromised, exposing taxpayers to future big bank bailouts; and special income tax treatment has been extended to hedge fund managers.

It may eventually dawn on people that business no longer has any intention of sharing its spoils with employees and politicians have mostly sided with them. Pricing discipline is a clearly a step in the direction of self-preservation. If consumers respond as a collective force and restrain buying and force pricing discipline, it would have a major impact on the economic playing field, putting pressure on corporate profit margins, excessive executive compensation and free spending on political influence. After all, if price competition keeps business from raising prices, how does it absorb higher costs? Middle-class Americans have progressively found the economic playing field tilted against them. Pricing discipline could help level the field.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.