American Middle-Class Now Second Class — Take Two

It’s nice to have successful friends of diverse opinion. When a couple of them are capitalists in the truest sense of the word — i.e., they increase their wealth and incomes by moving their funds around the globe chasing rates of return and potential asset value — are sought after for their investment advise, and have their own financial and economic publications, they also get to disagree with you in the open. In response to “American Middle-Class Now Second-Class To Canada — It Didn’t Have To Be This Way,” I was treated to two alternate views of why I am wrong on specific points.

Pay rose with productivity and then it didn't

BENEFITS “RE-COUPLE” THE DECOUPLED PAY & PRODUCTIVITY

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First, one such individual referenced a couple of British economic analysts who had addressed the observation I pointed out in my article when writing:

They show that when you add in benefits to pay and use the same measure of inflation for both pay and productivity, the disconnect between worker pay and productivity goes away, both in the US and Britain.

Their conclusion? “Middle-class stagnation and the ‘decoupling’ of pay and productivity are illusions. Yes, the U.S. economy is in the doldrums, thanks to a variety of factors… But by any sensible measure, most Americans are today better paid and more prosperous than in the past.”

Yes, but this is only a sleight-of-hand trick that these partisans pontificate to advance their own agenda, not because it is meaningfully accurate — it is just technically accurate.

Notably, using the “same measure of inflation for both pay and productivity” is a non-starter as that is not how productivity increases over time, nor is this how it’s measured in real terms. It’s just a mathematical trick to reduce or deflate actual productivity growth to bring it closer in line with stagnant incomes. Monetary inflation and production productivity are not connected in this fashion and doing so is disingenuous.

Truth is that what used to not show up on workers’ ledgers now shows up on their ledgers, and truth is that the component now has less value in real terms than it did prior to reassignment to the workers’ ledgers. The analysts also conflate wealth and incomes inappropriately.

What we are both referencing is the change from defined benefits for workers to defined contributions.

For example, as average life spans increased, the financial pressures exerted on organizational pension systems grew overwhelming and a shift occurred across the private and public sectors from traditional pension programs where one received a defined amount per year after retirement for the balance of their lives to one predicated upon 401k and IRA programs and the like where one received a defined contribution from their organization with no guarantee of what that looked like at retirement.

Several things occurred in this transition. What used to show up as an asset of the organizational pension now was moved to the ledger of the worker as an asset in the form of 401k’s etc. But, that move did not make the worker wealthier in reality nor improve their incomes — both are simply mechanisms through which retirement incomes derived. It just changed where things resided accounting-wise and controlled organizations’ costs.

All things equal, the worker is no better off and no worse… as long as the final retirement income remains unchanged. But all things are not equal, and final incomes are not guaranteed, thus we see today retirees not having the same incomes as those previously based upon traditional retirement pensions. So, there is a net loss of income to the worker overall, even while it appears their wealth increased.

Moreover, these 401k programs require more significant worker contributions to obtain the largest matching employer contributions. This reduces the net-net income of a worker and is not reflected in the aggregate numbers used by these analysts. So their view assigns an asset value to workers that is just an accounting move and inappropriately shows increased wealth while also not including the decreased net-net incomes from the move.

Finally, the “benefits” to which they refer are inclusive of health benefits. As we all know, these costs have increased dramatically over the decades. This alone adds an illusory increased benefit to workers when, in fact, they, too, are paying larger premiums for that health benefit, and worker costs are up dramatically more in deductibles, co-pays, and out-of-pocket maximums… Thus, all contributing to reduced net-net incomes — not the improved financial standing these analysts would have us believe.

The “benefit” appears more significant because of cost inflation yet the worker is no better off and receives the same basic benefit of health care provision they received when the “benefit” appeared at lower cost. Now the worker is made poorer on a net basis by the increased direct costs from the benefit’s cost-sharing mechanism. Moreover, just because the benefit cost grew larger on the employer’s ledger does not mean the income of the worker increased accordingly or that the benefit had more “income value.”

Oy vey!

washdry timecost

“TIME COSTS” OF APPLIANCES HEALS ALL WOUNDS

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Second, another individual posited that my position ignores the relative increase in incomes and wealth of workers because improved productivity and globalized production have reduced the “time costs” of attaining and maintaining a middle-class lifestyle. The writer maintains that costs of clothing, major appliances, cars etc. (the lifestyle asset cost of middle-class life) cost less today in terms of how many hours one must work to attain them… and the middle-class person is better off today.

Therefore, if it cost 3000 hours to purchase a standard car back in the 1960’s and now costs 1200 hours to purchase today’s standard car, then the real incomes of average middle-class persons have increased relative to the past. His point is that while this situation may not show up on balance sheets cost-adjusted for inflation, it is a very real phenomenon that means the middle-class is larger and more robust than we believe it to be.

Thus was written:

Bottom Line: The comparison of the “time cost” of appliances over time above confirms what Aparna finds in her analysis – average (and low-income) Americans are much better off today than they were 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago, thanks in large part to the significant reductions in the cost of common household appliances like refrigerators, washers and dryers, and TVs. The reasons for the significant reductions in the cost of appliances include innovation, technology improvements, supply chain efficiencies, increases in productivity and other market-driven efficiencies that drive prices lower and lower year by year, measured in what is most important: our time, and the amount of labor it takes to earn the money to purchase household appliances and other goods and services. As much as we hear about declines in median income, economic stagnation, the disappearance of the middle class, falling real wages, increasing income inequality, the data tell a much different story: The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer.

“The poor are getting richer” — Argh!

To be certain, technology has improved such that the “standard” has shifted and provided a lifestyle unimaginable or unattainable in the past; i.e., today, nearly all persons of age have a personal cell phone and internet access (hence access to instant communications); access to music proliferates on numerous mobile devises (not just families able to afford large stereo systems, or further back, their own music chambers); and the list goes on.

As they say, though, all things are relative. And, thus, to say that one has access to “absolutely” more of something now, or to something that never previously existed, or to say that it takes less working time to purchase a particular staple item of the middle-class lifestyle is not to say that they have access to more or better… relative to what their predecessors had relative to their own time. Standards change.

The average middle-class lifestyle requires more and different inputs than that same lifestyle from 1940. It’s not just a car, a refrigerator, and a radio. It is also a middle-class lifestyle relative to itself over time and those levels above it and below in any given year. As society evolves one would hope that the absolute standard improves (i.e., having only 1940 middle-class assets or household items today may mean you are “poor” today and not [or no longer] middle-class), and that is reality.

The middle-class standard and what it costs to maintain that standard have moved upward. This is called progress and something that we should desire for society. The lifestyle of today’s middle-class may appear to have obtained things impossible for the middle-class in times past, but that same cultural standard is relative to its position of the other classes.

If the death rate from cancer devolved back to that from 1960, would it be correct to say that’s acceptable because even then it was better than the survival rate from the 18th century? Of course not. Standards improve, and if the average person in a period can’t maintain their relative position over time in that moving standard, then we have declined as a society. Here is where America rests today. Fewer American families are able to stay in the current standard of the “middle-class.” Moreover, they are not able to stay in the same income percentile on a global basis — reference again this table of percentiles.

Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it requires well more than two earners working to equal the wages of a one-income household of 40 years ago. In fact, wages have plummeted so low that a two-income household is now (on average) 15% poorer than a one-income household of 40 years ago.

With the year 2000 as a base, real wages peaked in 1970 at around $20/hour. The average worker today earns $8.50/hour — more than 57% less than real earnings in 1970. Moreover, as the average wage directly determines society’s standard of living, it may accurately be said that the average standard of living in the U.S. has plummeted by more than half over the last 40 years.

Inflation for the last 40 years has hidden the 57% collapse in the standard of living for the average person. Nonetheless, if you’re fortunate enough to be at or successful enough to have earned a place at the top of the income charts, the situation is significantly reversed in your favor. While average American workers have seen their real wages plummet by 57% over the past 40 years, in just 15 years (1992-2007) the 400 wealthiest Americans saw their incomes rise by 700%.

Now we have the complete picture: real wages crumbling steadily lower year after year, decade after decade for “The 99%,” while earnings skyrocket for “The One Percent.” Is that acceptable? I don’t know… is going back to the cancer death rates of 1960 acceptable to you because that’s still better than it was in 1700?

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