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A More Productive Path than Self-Immolation

Everyone’s approvingly linking to this Edward Luce piece on “the crisis of middle-class America.” I want to set myself on fire.

Seriously, it’s discouraging to see so many people who should know better (because they’ve argued these points with me before) promoting this article.  I can’t think of another piece in the doomsday genre—and there are many—that gets it so consistently wrong. I’ll stipulate that none of the criticisms below are intended to minimize the struggles that many people are facing.  But it’s important to get this stuff right. Let me dive in, with Luce’s words in italics and my responses following:

Yet somehow things don’t feel so good any more. Last year the bank tried to repossess the Freemans’ home even though they were only three months in arrears.

The share of mortgages either in foreclosure or 3 or more months delinquent is 11.4 percent, which, because 30 percent of homeowners have paid off their mortgage, translates into 8 percent of homes. So the Freemans’ situation is typical of about one in twelve homeowners, or not quite 3 percent of households (since one-third rent).

Their son, Andy, was recently knocked off his mother’s health insurance and only painfully reinstated for a large fee.

Luce is arguing that there’s a new crisis facing the current generation. About 30 percent of those age 18 to 24 were uninsured in 2008 when the National Health Interview Survey contacted them.  I don’t have trends for that age group, but the share of Americans under age 65 without health insurance coverage was 14.7 percent in 2008, up from…14.5 percent in 1984.

And, much like the boarded-up houses that signal America’s epidemic of foreclosures, the drug dealings and shootings that were once remote from their neighbourhood are edging ever closer, a block at a time.

Well, the violent crime rate in 2008 was 19.3 per 1,000 people age 12 and up, down from 27.4 in 2000 and 45.2 in 1985.

Once upon a time this was called the American Dream. Nowadays it might be called America’s Fitful Reverie. Indeed, Mark spends large monthly sums renting a machine to treat his sleep apnea, which gives him insomnia. “If we lost our jobs, we would have about three weeks of savings to draw on before we hit the bone,” says Mark, who is sitting on his patio keeping an eye on the street and swigging from a bottle of Miller Lite. “We work day and night and try to save for our retirement. But we are never more than a pay check or two from the streets.”

The key question is, again, Is this worse than in the past? The risk of a large drop in household income has risen modestly, but people experiencing a drop end up much better off than in the past. For example, the risk of a 25 percent drop in income over 2 years has risen from 7 percent among married couples in the late 1960s to 14 percent in the mid-2000s (based on my computations from Panel Study of Income Dynamics data). But if you look at the average income of married-couple families after their 25 percent drop, it rose from $40,000 to $63,000 (in constant 2009 dollars).

Solid Democratic voters, the Freemans are evidently phlegmatic in their outlook. The visitor’s gaze is drawn to their fridge door, which is festooned with humorous magnets. One says: “I am sorry I missed Church, I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.” Another says: “I would tell you to go to Hell but I work there and I don’t want to see you every day.” A third, “Jesus loves you but I think you’re an asshole.” Mark chuckles: “Laughter is the best medicine.”

Hmmm…just a typical American household…

The slow economic strangulation of the Freemans and millions of other middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years. 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.

Adjusting for household size and using the PCE deflator to adjust for inflation, median household income in the Current Population Survey rose from $29,800 in 1973 to $40,500 in 2008 (in 2009 dollars, again based on my compuatations).  Factoring in employer and government noncash benefits would show even more impressive growth.

 

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.

This is entirely a function of changes in the population composition (more Latinos) and in the share of employee compensation going to health insurance and retirement plans.

Worse is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: declining income mobility.

Nope. The evidence is ambiguous, but the best studies imply that intergenerational economic mobility hasn’t changed that much in the past few decades. Intra-generational earnings mobility has increased since the 1950s, though it has declined among men.

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.

Tim Smeeding’s research based on the Luxembourg Income Study shows that in general Americans have higher incomes than their European counterparts as long as they are in the top 80 to 90 percent of the income distribution.  Below that, incomes are more comparable across countries, and the living standards of Americans look less impressive.  The US has comparable intergenerational earnings mobility to Europe, according to Markus Jantti’s research, except among men (but not women) who start out at the bottom.  In terms of occupational mobility, David Grusky’s research shows we’re as good or better as anywhere else, but this doesn’t translate into earnings mobility because we let people get rich or poor to a greater extent than other countries do. Jantti and Anders Bjorklund have estimated that Sweden would have the same mobility as the U.S. if the return to skill was as high there as it is here.  Finally, employer benefits further complicate how “bad” we look.

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.

The rise in income inequality is mostly about the top 5 percent of the top 1 percent pulling away from everyone else, and existing estimates overstate inequality and its growth by ignoring employer and government noncash benefits and possibly by ignoring different rates of inflation in different parts of the income distribution.

Unsurprisingly, a growing majority of Americans have been telling pollsters that they expect their children to be worse off than they are.

Totally wrong.  The key here is to only look at polling questions that ask people about their own kids, not kids in general.  Here are the relevant survey results I could find:

General Social Survey (1994)—45 percent said their children’s standard of living will be better (vs. 20 percent worse)
General Social Survey (1996)—47 percent
General Social Survey (1998)—55 percent
General Social Survey (2000)—59 percent
General Social Survey (2002)—61 percent said their children’s standard of living will be better (vs. 10% worse)
General Social Survey (2004)—53 percent
General Social Survey (2006)—57 percent
General Social Survey (2008)—53 percent
Economic Mobility Project (2009)—62 percent said their children’s standard of living will be better (vs. 10 percent worse)    (unlike GSS and PRC, asked only of those with kids under 18)
Pew Research Center (2010)—45 percent said their children’s standard of living will be better (vs. 26 percent worse)

BusinessWeek (1989)—59 percent said their children will have a better life than they had (and 25 percent said about as good)
BusinessWeek (1992)—34 percent said their children will have a better life than they had (and 33 percent said about as good)
BusinessWeek (1995)—46 percent said their children will have a better life than they have had (and 27 percent said about as good)
BusinessWeek (1996)—50 percent expected their children would have a better life than they have had (and 26 percent said about as good)
Harris Poll (2002)—41 percent expected children will have a better life than they have had (and 29 percent said about as good)

Harris Poll (1997)—48 percent felt good about their children’s future
Harris Poll (1998)—65 percent felt good about their children’s future (17 percent N.A.)
Harris Poll (1999)—60 percent felt good about their children’s future (15 percent N.A.)
Harris Poll (2000)—63 percent felt good about their children’s future (17 percent N.A.)
Harris Poll (2001)—56 percent felt good about their children’s future
Harris Poll (2002)—59 percent felt good about their children’s future
Harris Poll (2003)—59 percent felt good about their children’s future
Harris Poll (2004)—63 percent felt good about their children’s future

Pew Research Center (1997)—51 percent said their children will be better off than them when they grow up
Pew Research Center (1999)—67 percent said their children will be better off than them when they grow up

Bendixen & Schroth (1989)—68 percent said their children will be better off than they are
Princeton Religion Research Center (1997)—62 percent of men said their sons will have a better chance of succeeding than they did; 85 percent of women said their daughters will have a better chance
Angus Reid Group (1998)—78 percent said children will be better off than them
Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard (2000)—46 percent said they were confident that life for their children will be better than it has been for them
Economic Mobility Project (2009)—43 percent said it would be easier for their children to move up the income ladder
Economic Mobility Project (2009)—45 percent said it would be easier for their children to attain the American Dream

Also, polls consistently show that Americans say they have higher living standards than their parents.

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.

It’s not valid to compare her pay mid-career to her father’s at the end of his career—and also, how much work experience does she have relative to him?  Did she take time off to raise kids?

The pace of life has also changed: “We used to sit around the dinner table every evening when I was growing up,” says Connie, who speaks with prolonged vowels of the Midwest. “Nowadays that’s sooooo rare.”

Time-use surveys show that while parents spend more time working (because of mothers) than in the past, they do not spend less time with children.  They spend less time doing things by themselves.

Then there are those, such as Paul Krugman, The New York Times columnist and Nobel prize winner, who blame it on politics, notably the conservative backlash which began when Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980, and which sped up the decline of unions and reversed the most progressive features of the US tax system.

Fewer than a tenth of American private sector workers now belong to a union. People in Europe and Canada are subjected to the same forces of globalization and technology. But they belong to unions in larger numbers and their health care is publicly funded.

Though unionization has declined markedly in most of these countries, and their health care policies are increasingly becoming too costly.  Also, most of the decline in unionization in the U.S. occurred before Reagan took office.

More than half of household bankruptcies in the US are caused by a serious illness or accident.

This is bad Elizabeth Warren research—she counts a bankruptcy as being “caused” by illness or accident if one was reported, but the household could have been in serious debt before these occurred.  At any rate, bankruptcies are exceedingly rare (under 1 percent of households—see Figure 13).

Pride of place in Shareen Miller’s home goes to a grainy photograph of her chatting with Barack Obama at a White House ceremony last year to inaugurate a new law that mandates equal pay for women.

As an organizer for Virginia’s 8,000 personal care assistants – people who look after the old and disabled in their own homes – Shareen, 42, was invited along with several dozen others to witness the signing.

Ah…another representative household…

More and more young Americans are put off by the thought of long-term debt.

Evidence?

Had enough?  I have speculated that to the extent economic insecurity has increased, it reflects the impact of a negativistic media (amplified by gloom-and-doom liberalism).

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Pieces like Luce’s—and the blog posts it generates—affect consumer sentiment. Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner aren’t the only people who can inadvertently talk down the economy.

This item is cross-posted at ScottWinshipWeb.


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