The American Dream: An Endangered Ethos

Few words are slipperier than ‘ethos’ to grasp.

Even the best translation of the word – essence – is hard to get your arms around. Perhaps that is why so many of us were blissfully unaware until recently that the very essence of the American Dream was slipping through our fingers. Though the phrase, which captures the very, yes essence, of the American thirst for adventure, dates back to the hopes and spirit that emboldened prospectors to ‘Go West,’ those who first engaged in California Dreaming, it was James Truslow Adams’ popularization of the term that cemented the ideal into our collective psyche.

“But there has been also the American Dream, that dream of a land in which life should be richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order and in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

It is sweeter still, in the annals of our proud U.S. history that these words were written in 1931, during the thick of the most ravaging economic devastation this country has ever known. And still hope defeated despair, reigning supreme, inviting the lowliest of street urchins to achieve greatness in this country of endless possibilities. Were that only still the case today.

The housing crisis has long stopped commanding headlines. According to ATTOM Data Solutions, the new parent company of RealtyTrac, default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions slid to 933,045 last year, the lowest tally since the 717,522 reported in 2006. Is the final chapter written? Not if you live in judicial foreclosure states such as New York, New Jersey and Florida where ‘legacy’ foreclosures take years to clear. At the end of last year, 55 percent of mortgages in active foreclosure were originated between 2004 and 2008. Factor in what’s still in the pipeline and one in ten circa 2006 homeowners will have lost their homes before it is all said and done.

That helps explain one part of the chart below which was generously shared with me by one Dr. Gates. Longtime readers of these missives will recognize the nom de plume of my inside-industry economic sleuth. His first take on this sad visual, was that, “The heart of the American Dream has stopped beating.” Did that stop your heart as it did my own?

As you can see, after a steady 40-year build, owner-occupied housing has stagnated and sits at the lowest level since 2004. This has sent the homeownership rate crashing to 63.4 percent, the lowest since 1967. It would be nice to think that things were looking up for would-be homeowners. But it’s difficult to be overly optimistic when the local newspaper reports that house flipping in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area rose 21 percent in 2016, seven times the national rate.

In all, 193,000 properties nationwide were flipped for a quick inside-12-months profit last year, a 3.1 increase to a nine-year high. Moreover, the median age of a flipped home rose to a two-decade high of 37 years, about double the median age of homes flipped before the crisis hit. That translated into a median gross profit of $69,624 on a median selling price of $189,900 in 2016, a neat 49.2 percent margin, the highest on record. Awesome!

That is, unless we’re still talking about the American Dream. But then maybe homeownership isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At least you can still hang a shingle in this country. Right?

You may note that the decline in self-employed is appreciably more dramatic than the fade among the ranks of owner-occupied homes.

You see, it took more than even the cruelest recession to wipe out two decades of ingenuity, to decimate a trend, to shift a culture. Think of the financial crisis as merely the initial catalyst, the first nail in the coffin.

Then came access to capital, which was dealt a once in a century body blow. Seemingly overnight, credit cards and home equity lines of credit disappeared as a source of operating income. Arguably these two growth governors spread the lack of wealth evenly across the country. But it was the heartland that suffered the most as the number of community banks in the six years ending 2013 sank by 14 percent. Federal Reserve data found that this shrinkage resulted in a 40 percent decline in the number of people with access to community banks. (No, Dr. Bernanke, zero interest rates do not benefit the little guy. They just make it cheaper to borrow for those who have never and never will lose their entree to the credit markets.)

Note that neither ‘Dodd’ nor ‘Frank’ were mentioned in that last paragraph. The awful Act did indeed further impinge access to credit, but let’s say that falls under a different heading, the most insidious of the plagues unleashed on small businesses.

To that end, it’s the last nail in the coffin, the one that’s left behind the most difficult stain to eradicate, as we are beginning to find out the hard way as the GOP tears itself asunder on the public stage. Of course, we speak of the imposition of a regulatory burden that knows no precedent. It’s all but inconceivable to fathom an additional $100 billion in annual regulatory costs but that’s the reality, the legacy of the last administration.

More than anything else, even the Federal Reserve’s assigning of the have’s and have not’s among us, this suffocation of the ability to succeed that raised the hackles of middle-income Americans, bitter that they’ve lost the right to what once was every American’s birthright. The hope is that the nascent rebound off 2014 lows in self-employment continues as red tape is rightly slashed back to where it belongs, that is countries where capitalism doesn’t exist, that the 40-year low in new business formation is squarely in the rearview mirror. The prayer is that recession is not around the corner, an unwelcome development that would undo what little progress has been made.

“My hope is for our current President to turn this tide. Lord knows the last President didn’t do anything to get us back on track, and neither did the Fed,” Dr. Gates observed. “At least we still have baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.”

It goes without saying, ‘tis the season for all three of those National Treasures. Thank you, Dr. Gates.

As for yours truly…shall we dispense with the niceties for just a moment? Like it or not, part of what’s happened in housing is a natural Darwinian outgrowth of the ridiculous zero interest rate policy that’s set profit-seeking scavengers on one another. What we’re witnessing is a mere reflection of a world in which rational investments have been whittled down to nothing.

Still, might we at least raise an eyebrow to the schadenfreude that’s infected the housing market? Should we truly take pride in crowding out those who would rather own than rent a home in the name of hard-to-come-by profits in a low rate world? And what good have we done, allowing our feckless politicians to snuff out a proud history of entrepreneurship that put our country on the map? Will the one percent be capable of lifting all boats, or even care to do so, in order to reestablish our national pride?

It was later in life that James Truslow Adams placed a punctuation mark on his written legacy with the following:

“The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

No more elegant words were ever written to ensure our ethos would never be endangered. And yet it is at risk of extinction today. It is high time we stand up for what is rightly ours and take back the American Dream for one and for all.

The Federal Reserve and the Destruction of the American Dream

“Government is a just execution of the laws, which were instituted by the people for their people’s preservation: but if the people’s implements, to whom they have trusted the execution of those laws, or any power for their preservation, should convert such execution to their destruction, have they not the right to resume the power they once delegated, and to punish their servants who have abused it?”

—John Wilkes, The North Briton, October 19, 1762

 

No truer words have ever been penned to the betterment of a people struggling to break free of tyranny. Indeed, John Wilkes is considered by some historians to be the primary source of inspiration for revolutionary colonial Americans given his staunch defense of religious liberty, prisoners’ rights and freedom of the press, rights we hold dear to this day.

So idolized was Wilkes, our forefathers named countless towns and babies in his name, quite the honor all things considered. You see, Wilkes was also an infamous pornographer and relished his notoriety, raising self-promotion to an art form. Even Benjamin Franklin was disturbed by the raunchy rake, which is saying something considering Franklin’s own proclivity for dalliances.

But what if the colonials, the “We the People” to be, assigned added value to Wilkes’ brand of self-cultivated ill-repute? What if he rose to such fascinating infamy precisely because he launched vicious attacks on the privileged? What better way to become a champion of the powerless? Ring any bells?

On November 8, 2016, a stunned TV audience bore witness to Wilkes’ legacy playing out across this great land. Millions of voters joined forces to punish their elected servants who had so egregiously abused their power. The establishment was disenfranchised overnight.

Since the election, a not entirely unexpected pivot has taken place. President-elect Donald J. Trump is sure to have recruited cabinet members whose rich resumes no doubt raise the hair on the backs of some of his most radical supporters. We can only hope the promised, the demanded, reforms are not sacrificed on the altar of deal-making. It will come as no surprise to regulars of these missives what the deepest betrayal would be for yours truly. Trump must hold firm on his commitment to return the Federal Reserve to its right place as an apolitical institution. The very future of the American dream depends upon our new president being true to his word.

Reams upon reams have been written on the downfall of the American Dream. Social mobility stunted. Generations of stagnant incomes. The decline in new business formation. Income inequality the likes of which hasn’t persisted since the days preceding the Great Depression. Money in the bank is a theory for most Americans, even those fast approaching retirement. If you do have savings, by the way, you are punished with insulting levels of interest rates.

And just so we’re clear here and inside the trust tree, let’s be honest and acknowledge how and especially where the anger this trap incites will manifest itself — that is, shout-out-loud, hostile and open conflict and on our streets. An exaggeration? If only that were the case.

Two weeks ago, Real Vision aired an interview conducted with me right after the elections were held. Many subjects were covered over the hour. But the one that struck the loudest chord with viewers was the issue of underfunded public pensions, which stands to reason given the headlines of late.

But the reaction from viewers was anything but expected. The bile, the contempt, the malicious back and forth in the comments between public and private sector workers stunned me speechless.

It was the teachers, firefighters and policemen vs. you name the line of work among those in the private sector. No side won in the event you’re holding your breath. And both made great points. Promises made should not be broken. Teaching our children, protecting our citizens from harm – noble, often thankless professions without question. By the same token, why should someone who has worked their entire life swallow a spike in their property taxes to foot the bill? It’s not as if the investments in their 401ks are not on the same vulnerable footing as those in pensions.

The outrage prompted a private conversation with a great friend who also happens to be the most insightful municipal bond strategist out there (a subtle way to say the following comments must remain anonymous).

The first order of business was a correction to my concern that Uncle Sam would be forced to bail out weak pensions in the end: “The federal government is most definitely NOT going to write checks to state and local government! If anything, the current lineup on the Hill wants to move more responsibility to the states (and they have no money anyhow).”

There’s no arguing with the no money part. But indulge the rest of the conversation as here’s where we get down to causality, to culpability.

“I would lay more blame on your friend, the Fed. Remember that public pensions were funded in 2000 and prior to that, earning a seven-to-eight percent return on assets was no sweat. For the last 15 years though, we’ve had nothing but volatility and low interest on fixed income, the place where conservative investors are supposed to go to deal with retirement investment. This has clobbered long-term investors of all shapes and the feedback to the economy is not fully being taken into account (in my opinion).  If you are approaching retirement (read: baby boomers) and know you don’t have enough money in your 401k, you are not likely to run out and buy stuff.”

Few would dispute that Keynes’ Paradox of Thrift is alive and well. The ravages of the Fed’s low interest rate policy have forced an increasing number of Americans to save more to offset what they are not earning on their savings. The resulting decline in aggregate demand goes a long way to explaining the current economic recovery’s refusal to accelerate – even factoring in the third quarter’s 3.2-percent pace, current forecasts calling for 2.3-percent growth in the fourth quarter leave 2016 full year growth just shy of the two-percent mark.

But that’s the point of the Paradox. The millions of baby boomers retiring are going to cash, as they should to provide for this little thing called security. Still, the forced frugality sets an anything but virtuous cycle in motion, glaringly reflected in the economic health of the generations behind the boomers, an alarming number of whom still live with their parents. Bunking up remains altogether too common, which of course reflects mobility, or better said, the lack thereof.

The tie that binds the generations comes down to one word: debt. That’s where the Federal Reserve has inflicted the greatest damage. Set aside for a minute U.S. sovereign and corporate debt. While they’re mammoth challenges for tomorrow’s policymakers, it is household debt that has torn at the fabric of our culture and fueled the fury.

The latest figures from NerdWallet, produced by aggregating Fed and Census Bureau data reveal that the average household carries $132,529 in debt, including mortgages. That’s up from $88,063 in 2002. The cost of living, which the Fed lectures us is running too cold, has risen by 30 percent over the past 13 years, surpassing income growth of 28 percent over the same period.

What makes up the deficit? We read nonstop about student loans helping to bridge the gap. But it’s credit cards that have taken up the slack of late. The average indebted household is sitting on $16,061 in credit card debt, a hair shy of 2008’s high. As for those low interest rates, the average credit-card interest rate is 18.76 percent which translates into $1,292 in annual interest payments.

Add it all up and total household debt is $12.35 trillion. Estimates call for the prior housing boom peak to be surpassed by the end of this year.

Putting a face on these nameless numbers, these ‘indebted households,’ provides much-needed perspective. Imagine you’ve grinded out a living as a building engineer in Western Pennsylvania for over 35 years. Your pension was long ago converted into a fee-laden 401k that’s taken plenty of hits over the years. Meanwhile, the guy who works on the top floor of your building makes multiples of your income, a reality you don’t even resent. Your pride runs too deep to throw a pity party. But that’s not to say you don’t have your limits.

How exactly do you take the latest headlines in the Post-Gazette that at over $60 billion, the shortfall in Pennsylvania’s pension fund makes it the ninth-worst in the country? That state Democrats are battling to raise your already high taxes to cover the funding gap? Do you fall in line with the lemmings, taking your lumps? Do you apply for yet another credit card to cover your own newfound budgetary shortfall? Do you slip further behind, accepting your station and the demise of the American Dream?

Or do you switch sides and vote for the party that’s vowed to tackle pension reform come hell or high water? The outcome of Pennsylvania’s state legislative elections speaks for itself. Democrats lost seats in Harrisburg, Johnston and Erie. Outside Pittsburgh, there are no Democrats west of the Susquehanna leaving Republicans with a 34-16 majority, enough to override the governor’s veto. An override in the House is not in the cards — Republicans hold only 122 of the 203 seats. Still, it’s the largest GOP majority since the 1950s.

Now, back out to the rest of the country. Take a moment to study “The Two Maps of America.” A gracious reader suspecting I might miss the dueling visual wonders was kind enough to forward me the article published in the New York Times on November 16th, days after the election. In the spirit of paying forward good deeds at this time of giving, a link to the article can be found below.

What do these maps convey? Rather than a geographically divided nation, the first map reveals Donald Trump won most of the land mass. A stunning 80 percent of the counties voted Republican, many in traditionally blue states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and yes, Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, so illustrative is the NYT’s Tim Wallace’s description of the second map, it would be criminal to paraphrase: “Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won the cities, like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, but Mr. Trump won many of the suburbs, isolating the cities in a sea of Republican voters. Mrs. Clinton’s island nation has large atolls and small island chains with liberal cores, like college towns, Native American reservations and areas with black and Hispanic majorities.”

A separate publication recently highlighted the irony of Clinton’s staunch support in the ‘liberal core college towns.” According to the Economist, a college education in America equates to more in lifetime earnings than is the case in every other developed country save Ireland. As for the why: “the use of maths in the workplace is 10 percent greater than the OECD average. The supply is limited, since Americans are not particularly numerate.”

In the event you bristled at the pretense, at the elitist tone, you’re not alone. Our being “innumerate” means we’re incapable of conceptualizing and working with numbers. It means we don’t educate our children, that we’ve given up on the American Dream as evidenced by our de facto indentured servitude. To think, some still wonder how the media and the establishment drove our electorate to revolt.

President-elect Trump, consider this to be an open letter. The time has come to quit placating the masses with subprime this and that to still their spirits. Please fulfill your promises to represent them and their children with integrity, knowing the road ahead will be anything but easy, and that the temptation to allow business as usual to continue at the Fed will be enormous.

Millions upon millions of your supporters voted to do just as John Wilkes urged the oppressed colonials to do on October 19, 1762. They punished the servants who so abused their power by voting them out of office. Serve your country by refusing to squander their hard-fought liberty.

Link HERE:  New York Times, The Two Americas of 2016