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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 1, 2011 5:47 AM. The previous post in this blog was Afraid of the Portland police? You must be paranoid.. The next post in this blog is Mortgage crooks hanging in there in Salem. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The dream is over

Having been around and paying attention for several decades now, we find this analysis of America's economy since World War II pretty compelling.

After exhausting the first two coping mechanisms, the only way Americans could keep consuming as before was to save less and go deeper into debt. During the Great Prosperity the American middle class saved about 9 percent of their after-tax incomes each year. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, that portion had been whittled down to about 7 percent. The savings rate then dropped to 6 percent in 1994, and on down to 3 percent in 1999. By 2008, Americans saved nothing. Meanwhile, household debt exploded. By 2007, the typical American owed 138 percent of their after-tax income.
The bottom line: Prosperity isn't coming back without a strong middle class. But maybe that statement is redundant.

Comments (28)

I wonder how the tax load affected the savings rate?

Yes, this is exactly right.

The U.S. economy, like most major post industrial economies is driven by Consumer Demand. And over the last 30 years as income distribution has taken almost all of the gains and sent it to the upper income groups, consumer demand was sustained only by consumer debt.

When consumer debt capacity ended and the housing bubble burst, well, the economy tanked. Only people totally unfamiliar with economics would have seen anything different coming.

Going forward, Conservative policy of tax cuts for the wealthy, and cuts in government spending that benefit the rest of us are exactly what the country does not need. Looks like we will get it anyway.

Those who forget Econ 101 have to repeat the course, or at least repeat the recession.

Aggregate positive savings simply is not possible with budget and trade deficits. Want savings and prosperity? Raise taxes and let the dollar fall.

"Raise taxes and let the dollar fall."

Well, we're half way there with the dollar drop which has really helped consumers. Like TARP, I'm not seeing any change in Joe Average's prosperity. Neither am I seeing why making Joe Average pay more taxes would increase his savings rate.

If you want to throw out the mantra of more rich people paying more taxes, great. One problem is they have better representation in the Obama/Senate/House triad - Just like with Bush.

I'd be really curious what the average savings rate for the govt vs. non-govt employee is also - Especially since govt has grown much faster than manufacturing.

Of the 1%, by the 1% for the 1%

When governments take money from those who earned it and give it to those who did not earn it (taxation) this is exactly what you get.

But instead of this money going to "benevolent" social programs as we're told much of the money comes from the "working" (middle class) and goes to the wealthy (ruling) class. And some of that money goes back to the politicians that make this all possible.

Is it any wonder we have wealth being concentrated in the top 1% of the U.S. population?

What is "income distribution"?

Some apparently think it is a central command, or warehouse, that over the "last 30 years has taken almost all of the gains and sent it to the upper income groups".

We could all use a little more "distribution" but come on this is ridiculous.

Certainly our tax code has layers of advantages for the wealthy to reduce their tax burden but they still pay most of the taxes.

But having them hand over even greater amounts to government to spend is not a better system of "distribution" and does nothing to "balance" the distribution.

As if income balancing is the job of a government in a free society.

Vast mission creep and massive debt spending has hobbled every layer of government over the last few decades requiring the disproporianate distribution to a sea of bureaucrats and dependents entitled to what they never earned.

Haven't greater numbers of low income earners been paying no federal income tax, while middle and upper income earners have been hammered with things like the AMT to pay for the mission creep?

All the while many people have been moving from entry level low income to success and comfort taking full advantage of the income distribution command center.

However many got caught up in the era of easy credit causing their consuming to increase faster than their their distribution level.

Credit cards for everything and cheap home refiniancing to pay them off
built the house of cards now collapsing.

The problem is not a disappearing middle class. When I was a kid very very few families owned more than one car, people had one television, eating out was a special event, and may parents had two jobs. Go back to that neighborhood today and it is clearly better off.

The real problem is that people want things without saving. They over estimate how things will turn out when they get older, so under save. The tax system has many ways of saving without paying taxes, but I can tell you from talking to employees here that most do not take full advantage. Not because they cannot, but because they wont sacrifice today for savings tomorrow. And even more stunning to me, a lot of those that do save just leave the cash in money market accounts. Truly a bad idea.

One huge factor regarding the postwar prosperity that Robert Reich fails to mention at all in his piece is the fact that World War II shredded all of the other major world economies that could have competed with the U.S. It took a good 30 years for the economies of Europe and East Asia to get back into full gear so that their workers could compete with our workers on an even footing. Once they did, the full-employment-at-high-pay model of the postwar U.S. was no longer sustainable.

Of course I would love to see a stronger, more prosperous middle class, who wouldn’t? But to buy into Reich’s post World War II analysis is another story.

Want to have a period of extended prosperity driven by a strong competitive posture that supports high wages for all in the US, just like that era that Reich loves so much? It sure helps to start out by destroying the financial systems and the industrial infrastructures of Asia and Europe in a World War and then to hobble Eastern Europe and most of the Asian continent in the aftermath with economically inept, repressive, centrally controlled, collectivist regimes. The US can no longer dictate economic terms like it did in the post World-War II and Cold War eras. Today, the rest of the world is unleashed. That’s a good thing. We can’t and should not want to relive the past that Reich finds so appealing.

As for what happened within the four corners of the United States, it would be nice if Mr. Reich wouldn’t misrepresent. He says from 1947 to 1977 the US Government “used Keynesian policy to achieve nearly full employment." Yet, in real terms the national debt actually declined by about 20 percent over that period – much responsible and accountable about that fiscal and economic policy, but nothing Keynesian. Reich is living in a free-of-fact fantasy land.

Standards of living in the US across all economic strata are higher today than they were in the era that Reich harkens back to. The grass is greener on all sides of the fence. We do need ways forward and there are ways forward if one thinks in terms of what sorts of things can be done to reinvigorate competitive environments and unleash the productive and creative potentials of our people, our capital and our natural resources.

Those criticizing the spending habits of the middle class seem to forget a crucial lesson that's hidden in their own comments: when goods cost a hell of a lot more, you spend a hell of a lot more to get them.

20 years ago, a nice house could be had in Portland for $50-$75k. Today, it'll cost you a minimum of about $250k, and quickly goes up from there to over $400k. Incomes did not quintuple; discretionary income did not quintuple; and meanwhile, the cost of other goods went up, up, up. Complaining that people didn't "save enough" entirely misses the point that few *could* save--even those without credit cards or two cars, etc.

Today, to afford a lower middle class life, families MUST have two incomes. If you want to buy a home, saving thousands of dollars for a down payment takes many, many years.

But the real problem is the whole system is screwed up. The other elephant in the room is the fact that wealth continues to aggregate in fewer and fewer hands, and "upwardly mobile" is a cruel joke. Power and wealth aren't sitting in a reserve somewhere waiting for you to claim them--they're sitting in a few pockets, and those pockets are. Not. Going. to. Give. Them. Up.

The saddest part is, even commenters here believe that the answer is to "save more" or "work harder". That's exactly the mentality that makes the wealthy even wealthier, and the middle class poorer.

America will be a Third World country within 50 years. Get used to the idea.

As if income balancing is the job of a government in a free society.

Not that I expect agreement, Ben, but you could make an argument that it was government's intervention in income distribution -- first through Social Security, then through Medicare and Medicaid and large middle class tax breaks such as the home mortgage interest deduction -- that spurred the great prosperity of the 20th century. Obviously there are many other factors, but prior to the social programs of the last century there was a much smaller "middle class", and wealth was concentrated at the top. Economic cycles were more severe. The more equitable income (re)distribution that occurred after WWII created a large middle class that powered the economy for 60 years.

I would also argue that it is exactly government's job to moderate the private-sector excesses that led to the Great Recession. Wall Street is full of 20 and 30-somethings who just want the brass ring at all costs. They will commoditize anything -- say, bad mortgage debt -- in order to get rich, even if it undermines the entire system in which they operate.

20 years ago, a nice house could be had in Portland for $50-$75k. Today, it'll cost you a minimum of about $250k, and quickly goes up from there to over $400k. Incomes did not quintuple;

The interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was about 9 percent twenty years ago. Today you can get a 30-year mortgage for about 4.5 percent, a 15-year mortgage for around 4 percent and an adjustable rate mortgage for even less. Most of the increase in home prices can be directly linked to the lower interest rates. On an after tax basis, the monthly payment for most (principal and interest) for the $250K house today is less than $1,000, which is affordable for most, assuming they have the wherewithal to come up with the down payment.

As for why homes prices have gone up so much, the finger of blame can be pointed at the interventionist policies of the Reichs/Obamas on the left and the Bushes/Bernankes on the right who have intervened 87 ways from Sunday to reduce interest rates, promote home ownership and prop up the housing market. There's no escaping from the people who manipulate the system any way you turn.

“Not that I expect agreement, Ben, but you could make an argument that it was government's intervention in income distribution -- first through Social Security, then through Medicare and Medicaid and large middle class tax breaks such as the home mortgage interest deduction -- that spurred the great prosperity of the 20th century.”

I am not Ben, but I actually will agree this was a factor towards the latter part of the economic expansion when consumer spending was propping up the economy with little other support. The existence of safety net programs and progressive economic policies encouraged people to throw caution to the winds, to not save and to borrow excessively, because they knew if they hit bottom they would be rescued/cushioned. Net result was ultimately the zero saving and overwhelming debt noted by Reich in the consumer space that overleveraged the economy as a whole and which was a necessary condition of the financial meltdown which occurred in 2008.

Newleaf, not sure where you got your numbers from, but here's some real life. Bought my first home (with partner) in PDX in 1981 in SE. House cost a bit over 60K . The mortgage situation was this. First mortgage assumed from sellers at 12.5%. Second mortgage also assumed from sellers from second bank at 18%. Third mortgage directly from sellers at 10%. Had to put 20% down. Two owners, no kids, working full time. First 2 years was paycheck to paycheck (well we did some upgrades (rented equipment and blew in insulation ourselves) and got storm windows to cut heating costs and had to fix furnace).

In my mind, having to put a chunk of down payment into a place is good. Those interest rates were insanely high, especially since the risk to lenders with high downs and two employed owners who were not in any danger of losing work was pretty low.

My point is there has to be a balance.

As for the impact of the accumulation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, I just have one question. If the government keeps giving breaks to the uber-rich, how does that help you or your kids? And what value can any one person bring to a corporation that is worth $20,000 or more (or likely a lesser figure) in value add to that corporation?

"Certainly our tax code has layers of advantages for the wealthy to reduce their tax burden but they still pay most of the taxes. "

I suppose that depends on how you define "wealthy". In Tax Year 2008 (most current data available) 66.8% of individual tax came from returns with an AGI of $500K or less, 48.8% came from returns with an AGI of $200K or less. 50.2% of individual income tax was paid by persons and households with an AGI of between $75K and $500K.

Data from SOI Tax Stats. http://www.irs.gov/taxstats/indtaxstats/article/0,,id=98123,00.html

The interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was about 9 percent twenty years ago. Today you can get a 30-year mortgage for about 4.5 percent, a 15-year mortgage for around 4 percent and an adjustable rate mortgage for even less.

You're still missing the point, which is--in 1990, for example, a middle class person could buy a home costing *about two year's salary*, and pay it off 5-10 years--thereby freeing up the income you poured into the house and so getting more life options. Today, that same home would be about *5 to 10 year's salary*, and you'll take 30-40 years to pay it off.


Most of the increase in home prices can be directly linked to the lower interest rates.

Entirely wrong, and even the federal government has said so. The problem was loose financing requirements, and doing "100% financing" at every turn. Many of those being foreclosed on could never afford the homes in the first place.

As for why homes prices have gone up so much, the finger of blame can be pointed at the interventionist policies of the Reichs/Obamas on the left and the Bushes/Bernankes on the right who have intervened 87 ways from Sunday to reduce interest rates, promote home ownership and prop up the housing market.

First, the lousy housing market had nothing to do with Obama--it was in the tank by 2008. Second, it's well-known (and well documented) that the reality of fed rates dictating market rates became a myth many years ago. Anybody that tells you the two are directly linked is either naive or uninformed--or lying.

And none of this has anything to do with savings rates. People didn't suddenly stop saving money--the savings rate went steadily down as people had to pay more and more just to maintain their life and pay the bills.

Most of the increase in home prices can be directly linked to the lower interest rates.

And for a more typical example of why that's wrong: typical interest rates in 2000 in PDX, for example, ran a median of about 6.5-8.5%. Today, you can get 5% or lower--but nobody's buying.

One other set of factors that came into play: in the mid-1980's the government, with Bob Packwood leading the charge, abruptly changed the rules for taxation in a manner that disproportionately afflicted lower and middle-income taxpayers: suddenly, you could no longer deduct fuel taxes. Credit card interest paid could no longer be deducted. And interest earned in a savings account, formerly not taxed, suddenly became taxable income, creating a disincentive to have a savings account.

The list of changes was huge; the effect virtually immediate. Suddenly, folks who had purchased on credit, secure in the knowledge that they could deduct the interest payments and ultimately keep the purchase cost at a manageable level, had that rug yanked out from under them.

Second, it's well-known (and well documented) that the reality of fed rates dictating market rates became a myth many years ago.

Uhm, what? Ever heard of open-market operations? The fed sets interest rates which directly change market rates. This is a fact proven a priori and verified empirically. There is no equivocation on this fact between any economist regardless of school of thought.

http://mortgage-x.com/general/treasury.asp

I'd love to see your laughable sources that claim otherwise.

The fed sets interest rates which directly change market rates. This is a fact proven a priori and verified empirically.

Here's one "laughable source", big guy.

They've been tracking it for over 30 years.

If you're clueless after seeing that chart, any smartarse with Google access can verify it in countless other contexts--including the Fed itself. That is, unless you treat what Ben Bernanke says as reality.

If you're clueless after seeing that chart, any smartarse with Google access can verify it in countless other contexts--including the Fed itself

You need to review QEI and QEII which quite directly reduced mortgage interest rates the last two years via the Fed's purchase of hundreds of billions of dollars of Freddie and Fannie bonds (you know those things that were the model for the CDO's put out by Wall Street) as well as buying long-term treasury bonds. The short term (federal funds) rates in the chart you linked reflect just one of the tools the Fed can and does use to manipulate the money supply and set benchmark interest rates. Open market operations encompasses a lot more than charges for overnight lending -- sorry to say that you are in over your head on this one pal (which sad to say is how the genies behind the monetary policy curtain like it).

The Fed actually targets a broad range of interest bearing loans, not just one duration. The Fed Funds Rate is the overnight borrowing rate, 1 of many the fed targets. The Fed is more concerned with t-bill rates which it actively manipulates. If you'll notice the perfect correlation the 10-yr bond has with 30 yr conforming agency (Freddie, Fannie being the majority of the agency buyers, gov. agencies) mortgage rates, then you can understand that yes, the FOMC controls mortgage rates.

You were confusing the broader range of Federal Reserve influenced interest bearing loans with the more specific Fed Funds Rate, which is an equivocation.

It is absolutely true that Federal Reserve sets mortgage rates.

Anybody that tells you the two are directly linked is either naive or uninformed--or lying.

I guess that adjustable rate mortgage I had that was directly linked to two-year treasury bill rates was a figment of my imagination as well as are the pricing policies of hundreds of mortgage providers who set mortgage rates by layering a spread on top of treasury rates. There are other factors, of course, but that does not eliminate the direct linkages which are profound.

...Which has nothing to do with the subject at hand, which is fed discount rates being directly linked to mortgage rates. Nice try. It's all about mortgage-backed securities, home boy.

There are other factors, of course, but that does not eliminate the direct linkages which are profound.

You're still getting it wrong, but I can see you won't be convinced otherwise, even by direct facts (including a chart of both rates, and a wealth of hard evidence available at your fingertips). Rock on.

It is absolutely true that Federal Reserve sets mortgage rates.

Uh, what? If it's "absolutely" true, then you can easily prove it, right? Even given the link I provided above which shows it doesn't?

And here's a challenge to you both: call your local credit union, and ask them to explain how *they* determine their mortgage lending rates.

Oh wait, here's another example.

I just explained it! The Federal Reserve buys and sells government securities to set/target/influence mortgage rates. Did you click the link with the graph of the 10 year t-bill and rates??

Read this:
You were confusing the broader range of Federal Reserve influenced interest bearing loans with the more specific Fed Funds Rate, which is an equivocation.

It is absolutely true that Federal Reserve sets mortgage rates.

The Federal Reserve is not the "fed funds rate," they are two completely different things. The Fed affects pretty much all dollar-denominated interest rates.

Your 2nd link is asinine; just like me saying scratching my balls in the morning doesn't affect mtg rates is similar to arguing that the Fed funds rate doesn't affect mortgages.

Via Wiki:
The Federal Reserve is the central banking system of the United States.

The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which private depository institutions (mostly banks) lend balances (federal funds) at the Federal Reserve to other depository institutions, usually overnight

To sum up my argument: The central banking system of the United States (the Federal Reserve) sets the mortgage rates in this country.

A simple post on the economy and it devolves into a debate over home ownership and mortgage rates. George W Bush would be proud of this conversation as he was the most recent and most forceful proponent of the ideology of home ownership = American Dream. I for one do not believe that an illiquid asset, being an overvalued home in the mind of the homeowner, is the American Dream.

As someone who is not a Baby Boomer here is the American Dream:

Having a job that is too vital to the economy to be outsourced.

Vital defined as an occupation in a sector of the US economy where the job duties cannot be performed remotely (i.e. healthcare) or so specialized that it will be in demand regardless of which country one resides in (high level IT, specialized military experience such as demolition, handicapping political elections like Vegas handicaps sports events, etc.)

Outsourced defined as any potential middle class occupation moving from it's point of origin to an "emerging market" (Read: used to be 3rd world bunghole before US multinationals bribed government officials with tax cut dollars to set up factories and diploma mills), thus forth not only robbing the individual worker of a livelihood, but also the public sector of a middle class tax base to live off of.

Housing was nice, but rentals today and for probably the next 2 decades will be more lucrative at this rate. Housing prices will continue to drop because the substitute (renting) is too damn good in a market where individuals overvalue their home based off of the "cabinets" and "tile work" they put in 5 years ago.

Housing prices will rise once individuals get real, sober up, and realize that the value of their home is only worth what the highest bidder will pay for it at that time. If the highest bid is $150k even though they bought it for $275k and put in another $50k into it hoping to "flip it," then so be it. Take the loss and move on with your life or sink down with it.

Still wrong, "pistolero", but I see what you're trying to do.

By the way, the Fed stopped buying mortgage-backed securities over a year ago.

You were confusing the broader range of Federal Reserve influenced interest bearing loans with the more specific Fed Funds Rate, which is an equivocation.

Read this: I know the difference between the Fed and the fund/discount rate, smart guy. What you're trying really hard to prove is, despite even the FR not even claiming it, that the Fed "sets mortgage rates". You've also tried waffling by saying "influences", so I have a feeling you don't actually understand the system.

I'd challenge you to point me to a government web site that says "the Federal Reserve sets national mortgage interest rates". Just one's all I need. Go ahead, I'll wait. Not "Wikipedia", or any other asinine source of similar pedigree, but an actual federal government website or document that shows the Federal Reserve "setting mortgage rates".



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Columbia Crest, Walter Clore Private Reserve 2009
Campo Viejo, Rioja, Termpranillo 2010
Ravenswood, Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Quinta das Amoras, Vinho Tinto 2010
Waterbrook, Reserve Merlot 2009
Lorelle, Horse Heaven Hills, Pinot Grigio 2011
Tarantas, Rose
Chateau Lajarre, Bordeaux 2009
La Vielle Ferme, Rose 2011
Benvolio, Pinot Grigio 2011
Nobilo Icon, Pinot Noir 2009

The Occasional Book

Kent Haruf - Eventide
David Halberstam - Summer of '49
Norman Mailer - The Naked and the Dead
Maria Dermoȗt - The Ten Thousand Things
William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying
Markus Zusak - The Book Thief
Christopher Buckley - Thank You for Smoking
William Shakespeare - Othello
Joseph Conrad - Heart of Darkness
Bill Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything
Cheryl Strayed - Tiny Beautiful Things
Sara Varon - Bake Sale
Stephen King - 11/22/63
Paul Goldstein - Errors and Omissions
Mark Twain - A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Steve Martin - Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
Beverly Cleary - A Girl from Yamhill, a Memoir
Kent Haruf - Plainsong
Hope Larson - A Wrinkle in Time, the Graphic Novel
Rudyard Kipling - Kim
Peter Ames Carlin - Bruce
Fran Cannon Slayton - When the Whistle Blows
Neil Young - Waging Heavy Peace
Mark Bego - Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul (2012 ed.)
Jenny Lawson - Let's Pretend This Never Happened
J.D. Salinger - Franny and Zooey
Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol
Timothy Egan - The Big Burn
Deborah Eisenberg - Transactions in a Foreign Currency
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - Slaughterhouse Five
Kathryn Lance - Pandora's Genes
Cheryl Strayed - Wild
Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Brothers Karamazov
Jack London - The House of Pride, and Other Tales of Hawaii
Jack Walker - The Extraordinary Rendition of Vincent Dellamaria
Colum McCann - Let the Great World Spin
Niccolò Machiavelli - The Prince
Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus - The Nanny Diaries
Brian Selznick - The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Sharon Creech - Walk Two Moons
Keith Richards - Life
F. Sionil Jose - Dusk
Natalie Babbitt - Tuck Everlasting
Justin Halpern - S#*t My Dad Says
Mark Herrmann - The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law
Barry Glassner - The Gospel of Food
Phil Stanford - The Peyton-Allan Files
Jesse Katz - The Opposite Field
Evelyn Waugh - Brideshead Revisited
J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
David Sedaris - Holidays on Ice
Donald Miller - A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Mitch Albom - Have a Little Faith
C.S. Lewis - The Magician's Nephew
F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ivan Doig - Bucking the Sun
Penda Diakité - I Lost My Tooth in Africa
Grace Lin - The Year of the Rat
Oscar Hijuelos - Mr. Ives' Christmas
Madeline L'Engle - A Wrinkle in Time
Steven Hart - The Last Three Miles
David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
Karen Armstrong - The Spiral Staircase
Charles Larson - The Portland Murders
Adrian Wojnarowski - The Miracle of St. Anthony
William H. Colby - Long Goodbye
Steven D. Stark - Meet the Beatles
Phil Stanford - Portland Confidential
Rick Moody - Garden State
Jonathan Schwartz - All in Good Time
David Sedaris - Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Anthony Holden - Big Deal
Robert J. Spitzer - The Spirit of Leadership
James McManus - Positively Fifth Street
Jeff Noon - Vurt

Road Work

Miles run year to date: 280
At this date last year: 129
Total run in 2013: 257
In 2012: 129
In 2011: 113
In 2010: 125
In 2009: 67
In 2008: 28
In 2007: 113
In 2006: 100
In 2005: 149
In 2004: 204
In 2003: 269


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