A Sorry State
We, America, are in a sorry state. This appears, on the surface, to be something with which most people agree. But the surface can be quite deceiving. Pierce the flesh of America’s electoral body and you start to see massive disagreement as to what is needed. Most importantly, and currently very concerning, is that everyone feels the solution involves steps to be taken by the other guys – you know, those who are not in OUR group! You know – The O T H E R guys; the non-white, non-black, non-Hispanic, non-immigrant, non-migrant, non-middle class, non-union, non-civil servant, non-farmer, non-medical professional, non-patient, non-majority, non-minority, non-lawyer, non-judiciary, non-legislative, non-administrative, non-professional, non-politician, non-unemployed, non-under-employed, non-employed, non-disabled, non-enabled, non-educated, non-uneducated, non-tolerant, non-intolerant, non-poor, non-rich, non-government, non-private sector… you know the Other Guys! – The ones whose fault all this is!!!
You know – everyone other than us! All those (whispered) other people, who have (caused the problem) (profited at our expense) (stolen our money) (spent too much) (worked too little) (think they are smarter than us) (are uneducated and lazy) (expect too much) (do too little) Circle the correct answer(s).
Also disturbing is that we are allowing our professional political class to drive, not only our debate, but out thinking as well. All you need to do is read the news and you will be fed the continuous supply of sound bite, talking points so you yourself can help frame what needs to be done to make the OTHER guys do their fair share. And of course, these talking points – these would be mantras for us to recite each day ad infinitum until they become ingrained in our psyche and we think nothing else – are not just in conflict with each other, they are diabolically and diametrically opposed. They are crafted to foment the most discontent and the most innate conflict. This is what our political process has become. Led my our professional political class; stirring up a minority to a feverish pitch so the bulk of the country will become afraid, or simply exhausted and in the end capitulate with what ever patch, or band-aid, the politicians decide to apply.
Community activists know that the way you get big gains for minority positions is to frighten or exhaust the bulk of the population. You see activists understand that most people don’t really care about much beyond their own day to day lives and basic existence. They know that when the average person feels threatened, or if the story gets annoying and tiresome – in the end they will just want their leaders to make it go away. They just don’t want to hear it anymore! This process is not about the right solution – it is about any solution that delivers me peacefully back to my mythical happy life. And you know what? It has worked every single time! It is all predicated on the right rhetoric -the right mantras.
The Current Mantras
- We need to cut pensions costs We need better retirement benefits
- We need higher wages We need lower manufacturing costs
- We need more high paying jobs We need more labor jobs
- We need universal health care We need low cost health care We need more free health care
- We need to help people keep their homes We need to have the market sort itself out
- We need to lower health insurance cost We need better insurance benefits
- We need to stimulate the housing market We need the banks to lend more
- We need to raise housing prices We need more affordable housing
- We need more money We need less federal debt
- We need more social assistance programs We need to lower government debt
- We need a higher minimum wage We need competitive prices
- We need to eliminate illegal immigration We need more cheap labor
- We need to get the top 1% to pay more We need the top 1% to spend more
- We need to lower government spending We need more government spending
- We need more charitable giving we need to raise taxes and eliminate charitable deductions
- The poor are getting poorer The rich are getting richer
- The middle class is suffering We all need to sacrifice
Debunking the Myths
Most of the mantras in the list imply that fixing or making a change in one of these areas will repair what is wrong and remand us once again to the peaceful day-to-day happiness (even if it is just an illusion) that we all desire. While, depending on your personal political profile of course, all of these mantras appear reasonable, there is one underlying problem with each and every one of them. There is a set of fundamental myths that needs to be debunked. In debunking these myths, we give rise to the lies that are inherent in these supposed solutions.
To understand these fundamental myths we need to take a look at some assumptions.
The poor are getting poorer! Who are the poor? We often use the term under-served, interchangeably with the term poor. Historically, we really have not wanted to clearly define the poor for a whole host of reasons. Defining a problem, or a segment of a problem, is not politically attractive. Well defined problems either yield impossible solutions, or easy solutions, and make it difficult for redefinition on the fly without political consequence. For a family to be described as poor and eligible for social programs the must fall within the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) or some multiple of the FPL.
The FPL for a family of four for the year 2011 ranges from $22,350 in the 48 contiguous states, to $25,710 in Hawaii and $27,940 in Alaska. Seems simple enough doesn’t it? well like most things governmental, its really not. So if the poor are those who earn less than, lets say $25,000 to keep it simple, than all aid for the poor would be for this group of people. About 18.79% of the U.S. population earned less than the FPL in 2010. This equates to about 58,332,000 people. But the provision of social programs is not targeted just at the poor. They are in fact often predicate on 200%, 300% even 350% of FPL for eligibility for some state and federal program eligibility. So most programs eligibility starts at $50,000.00 in income to as much as $85,000 in some cases. This in turn equates to almost 79.8% of the population according to the latest census data.
Now in reality, not all of the population draw programs support at 350% of the FPL. Only a smaller amount of programs offer eligibility at that level. The number today falls at about 50% of the population of the U.S. is eligible for federal and state program subsidies and currently takes advantage of these programs. Either alarming, or relieving, depending on your point of view, this 50% is getting slightly more than 1/2 of their annual income from programs and/or subsidies provided by the federal government. 84.1 million people (27.1% of the population) earned under $50,000 per year (200% of FPL). Together they earned in aggregate $1,591,640,000 of the U.S. total personal income economy of $4.915 trillion in 2009 – about 32%. So 32% of the money earned went to the lower 27% of the population and about 1/2 of their earnings came from money paid directly or indirectly by the federal government that came from taxes paid by the rest of the tax payers.
The biggest assumption of all with this segment of the population is that they are suffering more than they have in the past. While it is true the poor in America earn significantly less than much of the rest of the population, they also have the largest amount of eligibility for programs to offset what they don’t or won’t earn. In realty, while they earn less in real income, they have at least as much if not more in discretionary spending income because few if any of their needs go unmet. They receive a wide availability of care options, both Medicare, Medicaid and state based, as well as other federal and state programs for housing, mental health, addiction, job counseling and training, as well as numerous faith based and institutional charity programs as well as philanthropic programs. This is not to say it is pleasant to be poor. Simply to point out that the “poor” have a large array of services that are making up for what they actually do or do not earn. It is better to be poor in America than in much of the rest of the world.
The Poor are the Under-served, is the core of assumption number 2. Anyone who has spent time working or volunteering in the areas of public health will quickly tell you that the under-served are not the poor we classically think of. The poor in America, as we discussed in the last assumption, are neither under-served, nor are they un-served. The bulk of the under-served are people earning between $50,000 and $110,000 per year. They have jobs, pay some taxes, send their kids to school, pay their rent sometimes late, or have a home, likely upside down in equity, and perhaps bordering on, or in default. Historically, they are two person family earners, and one of them has recently lost their job, increasingly one of their adult children is still living at home and has earnings insufficient to support independence, are still on their parents insurance, and one of the family members has a chronic illness.
The under-served are “working poor.” They don’t make enough to pay for all that they need and want. They make, or have made short term decisions regarding purchases, vacations, and or investments, that have come back to haunt them. If they have a chronic illness, they are making weekly, sometimes daily decisions between the proper treatment, or medication, and food, education, housing or clothing for their family. Often, health related costs are playing second priority, as a result their illness is getting worse, or in the worst case scenario, the untreated disease, bacteriological or virus infection is not becoming more resistant to the medication due to improper treatment levels – a potential public health hazard.
The under-served in America are squarely in the middle class. There is typically only one small incidental difference between basic prosperity and tragedy. A loss of one income, a chronic illness, a catastrophic accident, an unplanned pregnancy in inopportune bit of extravagance. Even without one of these incidental differences, the middle class are finding they have less and less discretionary income. More and more, even with raises, company healthcare, bonuses and perks, they just have not been getting ahead. They are earning more but are also more and more at risk.
The 29.6 million (about 9.55% of the population) under-served (a majority of the middle class) earned a total of $2.282 trillion (46.4%) of the personal income in the U.S. They earn on average $76,650.00 per year.
Assumption 2 is one of the main tell-tails to one of the major fundamental problems that if we do not come to grips with, will be the undoing of our economy, society, and ourselves.
The rich are getting richer on the back of the middle class and the poor. Said another way the 1% are taking, through inappropriate or ill-gotten means, what is rightfully the 99%’s. Clearly the rich have taken in much more cash in the past 40 years. But when you look at the percentages they have gained it is not really a significant difference, as a percentage, than in previous years. But first let’s take a look at the top 1% and find out how they stack up against the rest of the population. The top 1% (about 3.9 million people) earn on average 275,000 per year. The total combined earnings for the top 1% equals $850 billion per year or about 16.5% of the combined total. Conversely the 99% earned a total of $4.103 trillion or about 83.5% of the combined earnings.
Clearly there is disparity, but I was surprised to see that the disparity was not quite as large as I expected it to be given the rhetoric. As Dianna Dooley, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services for the State of California, said in one of her first public meetings after assuming office in 2011, “We all need to understand that disparity will exist.” Ms. Dooley was making the point that we cannot legislate away disparity. Disparity does not exist simply because of ill treatment or lack of opportunity. Sometimes disparity exists because people have made choices to not do certain things, not work, not get an education, not apply for available services. What percentage of the U.S. population does this characteristic apply to? It is had to say statistically because the census data does not measure motivations. We can use some numbers from a Thompson Reuters report in 2009 on the national health cares spend and we will find that about 20% of the monies spent go to people that have made such choices. I can’t say whether or not this is a valid measure for the economy as a whole. If I had to hazard a guess based on my life’s observations, I would think this is a reasonable estimate.
It does not seem to hold true that the rich are statistically getting richer, nor are the poor getting poorer. Both segments are getting more and more currency each year. The problem is not the amount of money they are receiving it is in the real value of the money they have. This is another clue as to the major fundamental problem, we will discuss shortly.
We have had up until recently a vibrant economy, America has been very prosperous, and if not for the actions of this political party or their policy (depending on your political affiliations it is always the other party and their policies), all would be just fine. Said another way, when so-and-so was the President (again, depending on your political affiliations it is always the other party and their policies) everything was just fine!
In my last article Republicans & Democrats: Division destroys WE, I outlined a series of events since 1935 that have had major impacts on the current state of our economy. It was not meant to be all inclusive. In fact, I have heard from a number of readers who have suggested numerous other events, legislation, decisions, policies and actions that they also feel should be included. I prepared this article to point out that it was not one parties policies that have brought us to the precipice. It has been both parties. In effect it has been us, our decisions, our demands for more of this and that, and it has been our willingness to accept a gradual migration from the citizen politician, envisioned by or founding fathers to a professional political class whose rule we embrace today.
Those of us who learned American history after 1937 have been indoctrinated with the belief of “American Exceptional-ism.” As President Franklin Roosevelt prepared America to enter the war he needed to break the back of the isolationist tendencies we have developed after WWI. Part of the method to do this was building pride, patriotism and the belief that America was innately exceptional. As a result the history that was taught after 1937 was quite different from the history we would have learned before. I have advocated in earlier articles using Google Books, and searching for history tomes written before 1900. There as I was writing, “The History and Evolution of Health Care in America” I found a very different recollection of America than the one I carried in my head.
America has had a long history of economic trials and tribulations. Almost immediately upon the signing of the armistice at the end of the American revolution, the United States went from waging physical war to suffering under an economic war waged by England, France, Germany and other European nations and banking interests. By 1800 the American dollar had dropped to worth about 48 cents. It was the War of 1812 and our decisions to temporarily drop the international gold standard that allowed us at the end of the war to reset the dollars value when we went back on this standard. We dropped out of the gold standard a number of times based on the excuse of War all the way through World War I.
The first time we did not drop off the gold standard as a result of war was World War II when the Federal Reserve refused Presidents Roosevelt request to do so. FDR’s first request came at the beginning of the depression and also was refused. Some economists believe this single action is what caused the great depression, others simply believe it increased the severity. As a quick note, it was not the the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that caused the depression but the great dust bowl and drought. The stock market had recovered much of its losses within 4 months. Once again our history, post 1937 often seems to not reflect the realities of the past.
If we go back and take a good look at our real history, with the exception of the benefit we gained from the massive amount of gold reserves we accumulated during World War II, the real source of our prosperity into the mid 1960’s, America’s economy has not been as stellar a performer as we have been lead to believe.
The Dirty Truth
There is a fundamental problem with our economy. It is truly fundamental in every sense of the word. And although is not “Fun” you are guaranteed to feel both brain dead “Duh” and “Mental” if you try to understand it.
We believe that we have had a robust and growing economy though most of our lives. Even at the current limits of human life span most of Americans were born after 1928. Most of us have come of age after World War II. And almost all of us working today were born after 1950. We have for the most part lived through what we believe is the hay-day of America’s economic history. And our perception is false!
While we had significant prosperity after World War II, it was largely the result of the cash and carry policies that FDR put in place with western Europe for the sale of war materials by America. FDR enacted two major policies; lend-lease, and cash and carry. Under Cash and Carry, much of what we sold to the allies was paid for in gold. By the end of the war America held in Fort Knox a majority of the gold in the world. I have seen estimates of as high as 82% of the world’s gold. After the war and as we moved into the 1950s America was booming and we had a large amount of room to expand the amount of currency in circulation since we had most of the gold. But by the 1960s, our policy of allowing other countries to redeem U.S. Dollars in gold had seen our reserves significantly depleted as most of our Allies, England, France and Germany had systematically redeemed their dollars for our gold. By the mid 60s we again were having problems maintaining enough currency to support the perception of our growing economy.
By 1972 President Nixon had a cash problem. We did not have enough currency in circulation for the government to continue to pay its bills, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as pay for the war in Vietnam, and the ongoing cost of the cold war with the soviets. As a result, the Federal Reserve advised the President to remove the American Dollar from the gold standard. In doing so we gained the ability to create more currency to fund the cash needs of the government and the nation. But, there was still a problem.
While the elimination of the gold standard, did free the economy from the physical limits of the gold standard, it did not free the banks, where new currency, actually is created, from the limitations of the fractional reserve banking system. Banks under our form of banking can create ten dollars of currency for every dollar of assets (or debt) they have of record. While this was far better than the practical physical limit we had on the gold standard, the growth of debt by the government and obligations under federal programs, defense, logistics and entitlements were growing much faster than the asset base. Debt, the other method to grow the amount of currency became the main method.
Money Supply vs Trade Imbalance and Federal Spending
In 1972, America had, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Banks, about $500 billion of currency in circulation. Currency, prior to this period had grown on a fairly steady low growth rate from the $73.7 billion in circulation in 1940. While the rate of new money in circulation increased from 1940 to 1972 increased over the prior years the growth was still predicated on the tie back to the gold standard and as such most of the growth was real in relation to the bulk of the world currency and tied directly to the asset base of the U.S. In other words it was mostly real economic growth.
From right after 1972 to about 1986 the growth in currency supply was driven by increases in credit card debt and the ability of the Federal Reserve and banks to leverage that debt growth with new money at the rate of ten to one. You will also see from the above chart that we were steadily increasing both federal spending and accumulating losses due to the ongoing trade imbalance. The main restriction on the growth of new money was the fact that the bulk of the main debt in the U.S. (mortgage debt) was in the hands of S&Ls and other non-banks. You can see from the chart as the S&L’s failed as a result of the changes in rules for realizing asset values, like the mark to market rules, and the banks gained control of these mortgages – and the underlying ability to leverage them at ten to one, much more currency came into existence. Of course as the currency materializes the federal spending increases as well. By the time we get to 2010 we have increased the amount of currency from the meager $500 billion in circulation in 1927 to over $15 trillion in 2009, a thirty times increase. One simply needs to ask themselves did we really increase the values of all the assets of the U.S. thirty times since 1972? I don’t see how!
And of course by 2009 we have also accumulated a combined debt based on federal spending and the steadily accumulating trade deficit of over $11 trillion. Even harder to imagine a thirty-fold gain in relative net worth of America isn’t it?
So where did this new money go?
As I discussed in a previous article entitled, President Obama’s Speech: Critical Question Continued, this new money was disproportionately spent in the areas of federal program spending and housing costs. The effect this has had on our economy has been catastrophic. If you look at the chart in the prior section, the amount of spending has almost equaled the new money created. An interesting statistical note is if you look at a simple projection of what our economy would be today if we had stayed on the Gold Standard it would be about a $5 1/2 trillion economy instead of $15 trillion or more as we currently see it. This could just be a statistical coincidence, I will leave it to the professional economists to explain this – although when they do I seldom trust them.
So one of the fundamental problems is that our economy is simply not worth the paper we have printed to count it. We have significantly overvalued our economy, alnong with much of the rest of western Europe. If everyone in the world did this the same way it would be irrelevant. But China and Russia, among a few smaller others, have not banked this way. While we like to complain that China is “manipulating their currency” the truth is they simply are allowing their currency to stand at its value and are not increasing the amount of their currency and thereby artificially inflating salaries or benefits in the country. As a result, China, and many others cost significantly less to make stuff for the rest of the world.
You see what we have been lead to believe about our prosperity over the past 30 years has been an artifice, a mere contrivance. While we have all felt like we were getting richer, and our elected officials have been telling us to spend more, and borrow more on credit, and how we should all buy houses. The reality is what they were doing is getting us to go further and further into debt to provide fuel to the fire of our own economic destruction. So while our borrowing, spending and mortgage debt allowed them to increase the amount of money in circulation, the new money had no more value. It was all a facade.
This brings me to the current argument of the 99% against the 1%. The reality is, it is not the 1% who have done anything to take the value from the 99%. I think we effectively debunked most of that myth in the prior sections. The real issues effect the middle class the most. The poor and the rich have been effected exactly the same but they have not felt the effect the same as the middle class – the under-served.
The reason the middle-class have been so devastated is a result of the following two points. First, the rich have larger amounts of discretionary monies. These are monies that are not consumed by the cost of basic day to day living. The rich also have more savings and a larger portion of their earnings come from investment. Therefore when the purchasing power of their dollars falls they have a lot more drop to go before the true value falls below this basic day to day cost level, even at their higher costs as a result of more lavish life styles. In other words, they are not taking more they just don’t show the effects because they are not yet felt.
Second, the poor, as we discussed before, get at least half of their income from the federal government, so as the value of the dollar drops, the government is just printing more money and providing more benefits to the poor in America. The source for the spending is only in part taxes. So while it is clear that even if you took 100% of the earnings from the top 1% it would not even put a small dent in the economic issues we face, and taxing the rich politically sounds really good, in the end it is not solving the problem.
Taxes are neither the problem nor the solution. The problem is we have simply created at least twenty times more currency that we have real value in the economy. And as such the middle class, equaling 19.2% of the population, 59.8 million people, are feeling the crunch. Our professional political class, with the best of intentions at every singe step, have gotten them to take on debt they could not afford, buy homes they could not afford, hire employees companies could not afford, pay salaries we cant afford, provide free stuff, that we can afford, and purchase products and services that we can’t afford. They have built a national economic system that is predicated on federal subsidies – through the creation of more valueless dollars – to lull us into a false sense of security.
Americans today, cost too much, spend too much, borrow too much, expect too much and often work and produce too little per capita relative to the rest of the world economy. We speak of creating more jobs, but then we focus them in areas that do not bring our nations strategic value. Yes paying people to fix decaying infrastructure is necessary, but it is not the same creation of new value as when FDR created the WPA in the 1930s. Having an entire nation of college graduates makes us all warm and fuzzy and makes us feel really superior to countries like Mexico, and Singapore, but they have cheap labor and less per capita expense for laborers. As a result their goods cost less and we buy much more than we sell as a nation from these nations.
We make all our companies provide tremendous benefits for being an American employee but these also increase the cost of the development of goods and services and price our products out of the world economic market. We tout our abilities as the innovators of the world, yet the profits from innovation are dwarfed by the profits from the manufacturing of the products we have innovated. And now other countries are surpassing us as innovators. Their education systems are producing superior students because not everyone goes to college. Some are tracked for labor, some skilled labor, and only a few go to college – often American colleges. We have no labor pool to speak of and we have invested way too much in many of those that end up in labor related jobs because we sent them to college only to find there were no jobs for their level of education. Further, there is an argument that we have weakened the quality of an American college education because so much of our dollars are spread across so many.
Yes, overall we are in a very sad state. I am not an economist – just an individual who has asked some questions and tried to find my own answers. Are my answers the right ones? – the only ones? Perhaps not! But for me they have begun a path – so I can draw my own conclusions. I do know this! Until we address some of these fundamental questions, most particularly the big one of our highly inflated economic values, we will continue our decline, and likely will continue to seek solace by letting our professional political class print more money and lull us back to sleep.
It is time to wake up from our 40 year dream of profligate prosperity and face reality. The concept that the other guys need to sacrifice but not me is a false one. The sad part is we already have sacrificed. Our prosperity is already gone. The only thing left is the counting! Oh yea, and class warfare, revolution and destruction if that is what we really want?
What do you want?