Sunday, August 01, 2010

Death March of the American Middle Class

While the government continues to lavish money on itself, self-insulate its spending habits, and ensure an uninterrupted stream of pay increases that the rest of the country doesn't enjoy. Count the CT education industry as part of this seedy brotherhood.

In one story after another, the depth of despair that America's middle class is experiencing is self-evident. Yet there is a law in CT that school budgets can NEVER BE lower from one year to the next. Sweet deal.

Meanwhile, Edward Luce of the Financial Times writes,
Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the ­multiple is above 300.

The trend has only been getting stronger. Most economists see the Great Stagnation as a structural problem – meaning it is immune to the business cycle. In the last expansion, which started in January 2002 and ended in December 2007, the median US household income dropped by $2,000 – the first ever instance where most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the start. Worse is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: declining income mobility.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French chronicler of early America, was once misquoted as having said: “America is the best country in the world to be poor.” That is no longer the case. Nowadays in America, you have a smaller chance of swapping your lower income bracket for a higher one than in almost any other developed economy – even Britain on some measures. To invert the classic Horatio Alger stories, in today’s America if you are born in rags, you are likelier to stay in rags than in almost any corner of old Europe.

Combine those two deep-seated trends with a third – steeply rising inequality – and you get the slow-burning ­crisis of American capitalism. It is one thing to suffer ­grinding income stagnation. It is another to realise that you have a ­diminishing likelihood of escaping it – particularly when the fortunate few living across the proverbial tracks seem more pampered each time you catch a glimpse. “Who killed the ­American Dream?” say the banners at leftwing protest marches. “Take America back,” shout the rightwing Tea Party demonstrators.

Statistics only capture one slice of the problem. But it is the renowned Harvard economist, Larry Katz, who offers the most compelling analogy. “Think of the American economy as a large apartment block,” says the softly spoken professor. “A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.”

Unsurprisingly, a growing majority of Americans have been telling pollsters that they expect their children to be worse off than they are. During the three postwar decades, which many now look back on as the golden era of the ­American middle class, the rising tide really did lift most boats – as John F. Kennedy put it. Incomes grew in real terms by almost 2 per cent a year – almost doubling each generation.

And although the golden years were driven by the rise of mass higher education, you did not need to have graduated from high school to make ends meet. Like her husband, ­Connie Freeman was raised in a “working-class” home in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. Her father, who left school aged 14 following the Great ­Depression of the 1930s, worked in the iron mines all his life. Towards the end of his working life he was earning $15 an hour – more than $40 in today’s prices.

Thirty years later, Connie, who is far better qualified than her father, having graduated from high school and done one year of further education, makes $17 an hour.

Umair Hague, in the Harvard Business Review analyzes American jobs,
The median duration of unemployment is, today, more than double what's it been at any point in the last half-century, at 6 months and counting. It's what you might call the dwindling of the American Dream.

Reviving the ghost of the great John Maynard Keynes, economists from Paul Krugman, to Brad DeLong, to Martin Wolf, to Bruce Bartlett, are chalking up a jobless recovery to a lack of aggregate demand. I'd like to advance a suggestion: it's not just the quantity of demand that's problematic — it's also the quality of demand.
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So one might raise their eyebrows, then, and reasonably wonder whether it's American preferences that are killing the American dream. If America has changed so much that what Henry Ford thought was eminently practical is now seen as hopelessly naive — well, then perhaps it's not just bankers, bonuses, and bailouts that are really behind the Great Crash.

Here's what I mean by that. Every time I buy something from your local big-box retailer, it's not that, as protectionists and "patriots" often claim, that I'm destroying an American job. In fact, it's worse: I just might be helping stamp out the idea that there should be jobs as we know them.
Consider: the bulk of that stuff is made, when we cut through the triumphant rhetoric of globalization, by people who are "sub(sub-sub)-contractors," enjoying few, if any, of the benefits we associate with "jobs" — security, tenure, benefits, labor standards, etc. And, of course, when those privileges are gained, production is simply moved to countries, regions, and cities where they haven't been.

Low quality demand, then, means that we buy cheap, but the price is invisibly steep: it ignites a global race to the bottom, what a complexity economist might call a dynamic equilibrium of negative consumption externalities, consumption that results not just in joblessness but a loss in the quality of jobs. The quality of a job is sparked by higher quality demand; or, valuing more than just the dollar price of a thing, but also its human and social impact. When we have low-quality demand, we have low-quality jobs. When we value McDonalds, the result is McJobs.

Michael Snyder of Tech/Ticker writes the consequences,
83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 61 percent of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.
• 36 percent of Americans say that they don't contribute anything to retirement savings.
• A staggering 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement.
• 24 percent of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year.
• Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets.
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008.
• In the United States, the average federal worker now earns 60% MORE than the average worker in the private sector.
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America's corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
• In America today, the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks.
• More than 40 percent of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying.
• or the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011.
• This is what American workers now must compete against: in China a garment worker makes approximately 86 cents an hour and in Cambodia a garment worker makes approximately 22 cents an hour.
• Approximately 21 percent of all children in the United States are living below the poverty line in 2010 - the highest rate in 20 years.
• Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16 percent to 7.8 million in 2009.
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

Giant Sucking Sound

The reality is that no matter how smart, how strong, how educated or how hard working American workers are, they just cannot compete with people who are desperate to put in 10 to 12 hour days at less than a dollar an hour on the other side of the world. After all, what corporation in their right mind is going to pay an American worker 10 times more (plus benefits) to do the same job? The world is fundamentally changing. Wealth and power are rapidly becoming concentrated at the top and the big global corporations are making massive amounts of money. Meanwhile, the American middle class is being systematically wiped out of existence as U.S. workers are slowly being merged into the new "global" labor pool.

What do most Americans have to offer in the marketplace other than their labor? Not much. The truth is that most Americans are absolutely dependent on someone else giving them a job. But today, U.S. workers are "less attractive" than ever. Compared to the rest of the world, American workers are extremely expensive, and the government keeps passing more rules and regulations seemingly on a monthly basis that makes it even more difficult to conduct business in the United States.

So corporations are moving operations out of the U.S. at breathtaking speed. Since the U.S. government does not penalize them for doing so, there really is no incentive for them to stay.

What has developed is a situation where the people at the top are doing quite well, while most Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to make it. There are now about six unemployed Americans for every new job opening in the United States, and the number of "chronically unemployed" is absolutely soaring. There simply are not nearly enough jobs for everyone.

Many of those who are able to get jobs are finding that they are making less money than they used to. In fact, an increasingly large percentage of Americans are working at low wage retail and service jobs.

But you can't raise a family on what you make flipping burgers at McDonald's or on what you bring in from greeting customers down at the local Wal-Mart.

The truth is that the middle class in America is dying -- and once it is gone it will be incredibly difficult to rebuild.
Maybe you think that's the worst of it. No, its not. Chris Isidore of CNN recently reported on how corporate HR departments treat the unemployed,
"Most executive recruiters won't look at a candidate unless they have a job, even if they don't like to admit to it," said Lisa Chenofsky Singer, a human resources consultant from Millburn, NJ, specializing in media and publishing jobs.

She said when she proposes candidates for openings, the first question she is often asked by a recruiter is if they currently have a job. If the answer is no, she's typically told the unemployed candidate won't be interviewed.

"They think you must have been laid off for performance issues," she said, adding that this is a "myth" in a time of high unemployment.

It is not against the law for companies to exclude the unemployed when trying to fill positions, but Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, said the practice is a bad one.

"Making that kind of automatic cut is senseless; you could be missing out on the best person of all," she said. "There are millions of people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. If an employer feels that the best qualified are the ones already working, they have no appreciation of the crisis we're in right now."

Given the economic crisis that's affecting tax-payers who aren't educators or government welfare queens, how can education costs be described as anything less than the looting of the unfortunate?

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