Category Archives: Economy & Markets

The End Of Capitalism Is Already Starting–If You Know Where To Look

My Comments: I argued last week (Is Capitalism Killing America?) that pure communism and pure capitalism are flawed economic models for society. They simply define the ends of a continuum along which we as a society are struggling to place ourselves.

I think this topic needs a better understanding. Mindful that economics is as easy to understand as Gaelic to any newcomer, an effort to get ones arms around it will go a long way toward solving the political riddle that is consuming us these days, not just in America but across the planet.

In terms of how the underlying economic model defines our lives, at one end, the individual has complete freedom to say and do whatever comes to mind. At the other end, the individual has virtually no freedom to say and do. Control instead lies with the state, which in today’s world means a geographically defined area administered by the state.

In times past, this might have been a kingdom, or perhaps a tribal group with loosely defined geographic borders. Today we are defined by areas with largely agreed upon boundaries which 99% of the world’s population accepts as reality.

The challenge for all of us it to determine just where on that continuum is the soft spot that defines a comfort zone for those living within those agreed upon boundaries. These comments by Eillie Anzilotti help us better understand the search for equilibrium.

By Eillie Anzilotti / Sep 18, 2017

These days, Richard Wolff is feeling pretty glad he stuck around teaching this long. Now in his 70s and lecturing at the New School University and having become, over the course of his nearly 50-year-long professorial career, one of America’s most prominent Marxist economists, Wolff is used to being fringe. That’s no longer a word that can apply to him, or to his ideas. Over the summer, inequality experts Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk launched a conversation on this site when they posed the theory that capitalism is at the core of the many crises gripping our world today. To Wolff, that’s not news. But it is new to him to see the same ideas he has taught for decades being met not with scorn or skepticism, but with genuine interest.

In 2011, the same year that Occupy Wall Street injected dissatisfaction with the financial system into the American mainstream, Wolff founded Democracy at Work, a nonprofit that advocates for worker cooperatives–a business structure in which the employees own the company, and share decision-making power over salaries, schedules, and where profits are directed. “If I had to pinpoint right now where the transition away from capitalism is happening in the United States, it’s in worker co-ops,” Wolff says. Though he’s been championing the cause of cooperatives–a radically democratic departure from the top-down capitalist business structure–for years, certain recent events, like the 2008 recession and the presidency of Donald Trump, poster boy for corrupt capitalism, have galvanized a distinctly anti-capitalist movement in the U.S.

“Americans are getting closer and closer to understanding that they live in an economic system that is not working for them, and will not work for their kids,” Wolff says. Growing awareness that wages have been unable to keep up with inflated costs of living have left younger generations particularly disillusioned with capitalism’s ability to support their livelihoods, Wolff says, and with CEOs out-earning employees by sometimes as much as 800 to 1, it makes sense that public interest should be swinging toward a workplace model that encapsulates shared ownership, consensus-based decision making, and democratized wages.

Admittedly, Wolff acknowledges, a small boom in the number of worker-owned cooperatives in the U.S.–consecutive years of double-digit growth in co-ops since 2010 have brought the total up to around 350, employing around 5,000 people–does not exactly scream revolution. But perhaps that’s because historical precedents for alternatives to capitalism have conditioned us to expect its end to dramatic and cataclysmic.

But that might be mean we’re looking in the wrong places. “I don’t want people to think in terms of Russia and China,” Wolff says. In their pursuit of an alternative, Wolff says, those countries neglected to do the work of transition at the micro scale, instead initiating wide-sweeping reforms at the state level and leaving their populations in the lurch.

Instead, Wolff says, it’s instructive to look to the transition to capitalism, and understand that it’s the smaller waves and shifts in the way things are done that signal true change.

Before capitalism emerged in Europe, there was feudalism, a radically different system in which nothing–neither land nor labor–was for sale, and serfs orbited their feudal lord like ribbons tethered to a maypole. Feudalism’s inhumanity was different from capitalism’s: Instead of being unable to work and earn money to pay for rent and necessities, serfs were dependent on the lords for their livelihoods and their schedules and for a piece on land upon which to labor. Their stability was contingent on the lord’s generosity or lack thereof.

Sometimes, serfs would get squeezed, Wolff says–maybe a serf who was permitted to work his own land three days a week was cut down to two, and had to work on the lord’s the rest of the time, struggling to feed his family. Those serfs would run away. They’d jet off into the forests around the manors, where they’d encounter other runaway serfs (this is the origin of Robin Hood). That group of runaways, who’d cut ties with the feudal system, would establish their own villages, called communes. Without the lord controlling how the former serfs used their land and their resources, those free workers set up a system of production and trade in the communes that would eventually evolve into modern capitalism.

“The image of the transition from feudalism to capitalism was the French Revolution, and that was part of it,” Wolff says, “but it wasn’t the whole story. The actual transition was much slower, and not cataclysmic, and found in these serfs that ran away and set up something new.”

In the U.S., businesses converting to cooperative workplace models are the functional equivalent of those runaway serfs. Around 10 cities across the U.S. have, in recent years, launched initiatives specifically to support the development of worker co-ops, which have been especially beneficial in creating job and wage stability in low-income neighborhoods. Because workers are beholden to themselves and each other, rather than a CEO and a board of directors, the model parts ways with the capitalist structure and advances something that more closely resembles a true democratic system.

“This is the beginning of the end of capitalism,” Wolff says. “Whether these experiments–which is what we have to call them at this point–will congeal into a massive social transformation, I don’t know. But I do know that massive social transformations have never happened without this stage. This stage may not do it, but change won’t happen without it,” he adds. These subtle shifts away from capitalism are not just apparent in the development of more co-ops, Wolff says. Over the past year, he’s been called in to meet with CEOs at large financial firms, who seemed to Wolff to be steeling themselves for a dethroning. As CEOs continue to disproportionately outearn their employees, the call for a dismantling of the system has become loud enough that they seem to have no choice but to pay attention. While it’s a flimsy gesture, some have distributed their bonuses to their employees.

“The move toward co-ops and the change in consciousness I’ve witnessed in workplaces and among my students are the two mechanisms of transformation that are now underway globally, and I’d like to say–it’s more a wish than anything else–that it’s too late to stop them,” Wolff says. “And the sheer beauty of this is that nothing fuels this movement more than capitalism’s own troubles, and the displeasure, disaffection, and anxiety it produces.”

Of course, the thought currents and little blooms of democratic workplaces are not enough to engineer a new economic system. These developments are all happening outside of the political system; in the White House and in Congress, the presence of big capitalist businesses continues as strong asever. But the fact that local governments like New York City and Austin have launched incubator programs for worker-owned cooperatives indicates that they’re not incompatible with the current political system.

Could it look something like inviting Medicare and Medicaid recipients into the legislating body that decides the future of healthcare in this country? Could it look something like involving women in the legal processes that determines what resources they can access to care for their own bodies? Something like a cooperativized Housing and Urban Development department that brings those people it aims to serve into the process of determining how best to do so?

Or what about developing a justice system that relies not on removing people from the formal economy via mass incarceration, but that emphasizes cooperative employment and job training at both points of re-entry and pre-incarceration? Kimberly Westcott, associate counsel in the New York-based Community Service Society, a 172-year-old anti-poverty organization, has begun a program through Democracy at Work to teach cooperative work within prisons. If the cooperatives that could form inside prisons could function just like those on the other side, are the walls necessary?

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Is Capitalism Killing America?

My Comments: In the minds of many, capitalism is the antithesis of communism. And they are essentially right. In the minds of many, communism and socialism and fascism are one and the same. And they are essentially wrong.

Communism is an economic model where the state owns everything involved in providing goods and services to the members of society. All members of that society are bound by a framework that starts at the state and ends at the state. History has shown this to be a fatally flawed model.

At the other end of the continuum is capitalism, where the state has no say in the production of goods and services to benefit the members of society. Everything is determined by the individual first and then slowly upstream as determined by the collective will of many individuals. Rules and regulations are anathema and are to be opposed and vilified at every opportunity.

Into this mix appears religion and other social pressures that have evolved over the millennia to create a mechanism which allows us to survive and thrive. I argue that capitalism in it’s unfettered state is an equally flawed economic model.

Bring all this into the 21st Century and you have arguments pro and con.  How does society find that spot along the continuum between the two models to best meet the needs of ALL OF US. It matters not that it doesn’t have a convenient name. What matters is that we focus our time and energy on the creation of a balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of society. The goal is to preserve society such that both individuals and society can survive and thrive.

We are in the midst of such a discussion today. The emergence of Trump and the push back from the non-Trumps will structure the framework that our children and grandchildren will experience as they travel through life. Without an agreed upon balance resulting in an economically viable middle class, we are doomed to failure. Your voice needs to be heard.

September 18, 2017 | by Theodore Kinni

On August 2, 2017, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a record-breaking 22,000—its fourth 1,000-point advance in less than a year. That same day, I read the first sentence in Peter Georgescu’s new book, Capitalists Arise! End Economic Inequality, Grow the Middle Class, Heal the Nation: “For the past four decades, capitalism has been slowly committing suicide.”

How does Georgescu, the chairman emeritus of Young & Rubicam (Y&R) and a 1963 graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business, reconcile the Dow’s ascent with his gloomy assertion?

“The stock market has nothing to do with the economy per se,” he says. “It has everything to do with only one thing: how much profit companies can squeeze out of the current crop of flowers in the garden. Pardon the metaphor. But that’s what corporations do—they squeeze out profits.”

In the latter half of the 1990s, Georgescu shepherded Y&R through a global expansion and an IPO. He has served on the boards of eight public companies, including Levi Strauss, Toys “R” Us, and International Flavors & Fragrances. He also is the author of two previous books, The Constant Choice: An Everyday Journey from Evil Toward Good and The Source of Success. An Advertising Hall of Fame inductee, the 78-year-old adman is still pitching corporate leaders. Now, however, he is trying to convince them to fundamentally rethink how—and for whom—they run their companies.

The fault lines in capitalism

Capitalism is an endangered economic system, Georgescu says. He sees a dearth of demand across the global economy, even as American corporations record their highest profits ever. “How does this magic happen?” he asks rhetorically. “You engineer it. You buy back your stock at 4% and change. Your earnings per share go up and the market says, ‘We like that.’”

What does he mean? He cites the seminal research by economist William Lazonick, who studied S&P 500 companies from 2003 to 2012 and discovered that they routinely spend 54% of their earnings buying back their own stock (reducing the number of outstanding shares and driving up share prices) and 37% of their earnings on dividends—both of which benefit shareholders. That leaves just 9% of earnings for investment in their business and their people.

This financial legerdemain obscures two fundamental fault lines in capitalism, and particularly in the US economy, according to Georgescu. The first is a lack of investment by companies in their own futures. “Our companies are not competitive because they don’t invest in themselves,” he says. “Total R&D investment is down. Total basic research, which is the precursor of innovation, is down dramatically. Investment in infrastructure has fallen to critical levels.”

The second fault line is the lack of investment by companies in their employees. “Innovation is the only real driver of success in the 21st century, and who does the innovation? Our employees. How are we motivating them? We treat them like dirt. If I need you, I need you. If I don’t, you’re out of here. And I keep your wages flat for 40 years,” says Georgescu, who points out that growth in real wages has been stagnant since the mid-1970s.

The engines of capitalism are sputtering

The lack of investment by US corporations in their businesses and people is not only causing the engine that powers innovation gain to sputter, but also slowing the engine of demand that produces topline growth. Why? Median household income in the U.S. is less than 1% higher today than in 1989, according to the Census Bureau. “There’s no middle class, and the upper middle class has very little money left to spend, so they can’t drive the economy. The only people driving the GDP are the top 20% of us,” Georgescu says.

Today’s mantra is ‘maximize short-term shareholder value.’ Period. The rules of the game have become cancerous. They’re killing us.

Peter Georgescu

In Capitalists Arise!, Georgescu shows how these issues are impacting the American public. Nearly 60% of American households are technically insolvent and adding to their debt loads each year. In addition, income inequality in the U.S. is reaching new peaks: The top layer of earners now claim a larger portion of the nation’s income than ever before — more even than the peak in 1927, just two years before the onset of the Great Depression.

Georgescu lays the blame for all of these conditions on the ascendency of the doctrine of shareholder primacy. “Today’s mantra is ‘maximize short-term shareholder value.’ Period,” he says. “The rules of the game have become cancerous. They’re killing us. They’re killing the corporation. They’re helping to kill the country.”

Back to responsible capitalism

Georgescu is convinced he knows how to beat this cancer, and he’s pitching it to corporate leaders across the country. “The cure can be found in the post–World War II economic expansion. From 1945 until the 1970s, the US economy was booming and America’s middle class was the largest market in the world,” he says.

“In those days, American capitalism said, ‘We’ll take care of five stakeholders,’” he continues. “Then and now, the most important stakeholder is the customer. The second most important is the employee. If you don’t have happy employees, you’re not going to have happy customers. The third critical stakeholder is the company itself — it needs to be fed. Fourth come the communities in which you do business. Corporations were envisioned as good citizens—that’s why they got an enormous number of legal protections and tax breaks in the first place.”

In Georgescu’s schema, shareholders are the last of the five stakeholders, not the first. “If you serve all the other stakeholders well, the shareholders do fine,” he says. “If you take good care of your customers, pay your people well, invest in your own business, and you’re a good citizen, the shareholder does better. We need to get back to that today. Every company has got to do that.”

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com. This post originally appeared on Insights, by Stanford Business. http://stanford.io/2wBV8Wd

Less Immigration Equals Less Growth

My Comments: This thought comes from Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. I repeat them here for two reasons: one, investment returns correlate positively with economic growth and two, young people in this country are having fewer children.

Why are we encouraged to fear immigrants and immigration? What threat do they actually pose to the rest of us? Life in these United States is almost always better with more money and more money comes from economic growth. Fewer immigrants over time will simply mean we have less money. Why is that a good thing?

This photo is of me, my mother and grandmother on June 20, 1950. It was the day I left England and immigrated to the United States.

by Ann Saphir, August 7, 2017

Reuters) – Less than week after a U.S. President Donald Trump embraced legislation to reduce immigration, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari urged residents of South Dakota to embrace newcomers instead.

“Just going to math, if a big source of economic growth is population growth, and your population growth slows, either because you restrict immigration or because you have fewer babies, your economic growth is going to slow,” Kashkari said at the Rotary Club of Downtown Sioux Falls, responding to a question about a Trump-backed bill to cut legal immigration by 50 percent over the next 10 years. “Do we want economic growth, or not? That’s what it comes down to.”

Kashkari not alone in seeing immigration as key to U.S. economic growth.

Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan routinely points out that immigrants have historically boosted U.S. workforce growth, and therefore economic growth, and has warned that the crackdown on illegal immigration could hurt consumer spending. Fed Chair Janet Yellen told U.S. lawmakers earlier this year that slowing immigration could probably hurt growth.

Most economic research suggests that immigration has little effect on wages of U.S. workers, and one recent study of what happened after the U.S. ended a guest-worker program for Mexican farm workers in the 1960s showed that growers, instead of raising wages to attract more workers, simply automated more of their field work.

The U.S. economy has been stuck at about 2-percent growth in recent years, and appears unlikely to break to out of that pattern anytime soon, St. Louis Fed President Bullard said earlier Monday.

“You can either accept slower growth; you can spend a lot of money to subsidize fertility – child care etc, very expensive – or you can embrace immigration. That’s math,” Kashkari told the audience in Sioux Falls, where the foreign-born population grew by more than a third from 2010 to 2014, figures from the U.S. census show.

“You guys have done a pretty good job of embracing immigration and that is a source of economic growth vibrancy.”

X Marks the Spot Where Inequality Took Root: Dig Here

My Comments: You’ve heard me say that income inequality is the greatest existential threat to our society going forward. If we allow the disparity between the haves and the have nots to become wider and wider, it’s only a matter of time before chaos will reign.

People want what money will buy. Companies will manufacture and produce what people want to buy. But if you allow the want to overwhelm the ability to pay for it, it’s only a matter of time before chaos will reign.

In order to survive, companies will find ways to cut costs, not just to increase profits, but to assure they remain competitive in a shrinking market place.

But the trajectory is not infinite; sooner or later they will stop manufacturing and producing stuff if there aren’t enough buyers to justify the fixed costs.

How many hat makers are there these days compared with 100 years ago? I grew up in a time when every male owned a hat. I had one when I was in high school. When was the last time you saw a male person wearing a dress hat when entering a restaurant or going to church?

We need to identify who, among our future political leaders, those who understand economics. It’s not about empowering the existing poor; it’s about making sure there are enough of us with money left to spend.

by Stan Sorscher \ August 5, 2015

In 2002, I heard an economist characterizing this figure as containing a valuable economic insight. He wasn’t sure what the insight was. I have my own answer.

The economist talked of the figure as a sort of treasure map, which would lead us to the insight. “X” marks the spot. Dig here.

The graphic below tells three stories.

First, we see two distinct historic periods since World War II. In the first period, workers shared the gains from productivity. In the later period, a generation of workers gained little, even as productivity continued to rise.

The second message is the very abrupt transition from the post-war historic period to the current one. Something happened in the mid-70’s to de-couple wages from productivity gains.

The third message is that workers’ wages – accounting for inflation and all the lower prices from cheap imported goods – would be double what they are now, if workers still took their share of gains in productivity.

A second version of the figure is equally provocative.

This graphic shows the same distinct historic periods, and the same sharp break around 1975. Each colored line represents the growth in family income, relative to 1975, for different income percentiles. Pre-1975, families at all levels of income benefited proportionately. Post-1975, The top 5% did well, and we know the top 1% did very well. Gains from productivity were redistributed upward to the top income percentiles.

This de-coupling of wages from productivity has drawn a trillion dollars out of the labor share of GDP.

Economics does not explain what happened in the mid-70s.

It was not the oil shock. Not interest rates. Not the Fed, or monetary policy. Not robots, or the decline of the Soviet Union, or globalization, or the internet.

The sharp break in the mid-70’s marks a shift in our country’s values. Our moral, social, political and economic values changed in the mid-70’s.

Let’s go back before World War II to the Great Depression. Speculative unregulated policies ruined the economy. Capitalism was discredited. Powerful and wealthy elites feared the legitimate threat of Communism. The public demanded that government solve our problems.

The Depression and World War II defined that generation’s collective identity. Our national heroes were the millions of workers, soldiers, families and communities who sacrificed. We owed a national debt to those who had saved Democracy and restored prosperity. The New Deal policies reflected that national purpose, honoring a social safety net, increasing bargaining power for workers and bringing public interest into balance with corporate power.

In that period, the prevailing social contract said, “We all do better when we all do better.” My prosperity depends on your well-being. In that period of history, you were my co-worker, neighbor or customer.

Opportunity and fairness drove the upward spiral (with some glaring exceptions). Work had dignity. Workers earned a share of the wealth they created. We built Detroit (for instance) by hard work and productivity.

Our popular media father-figures were Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and others, liberal and conservative, who were devoted to an America of opportunity and fair play.

The sudden change in the mid-70’s was not economic. First it was moral, then social, then political, ….. then economic.

In the mid-70’s, we traded in our post-World War II social contract for a new one, where “greed is good.” In the new moral narrative I can succeed at your expense. I will take a bigger piece of a smaller pie. Our new heroes are billionaires, hedge fund managers, and CEO’s.

In this narrative, they deserve more wealth so they can create more jobs, even as they lay off workers, close factories and invest new capital in low-wage countries. Their values and their interests come first in education, retirement security, and certainly in labor law.

We express these same distorted moral, social and political priorities in our trade policies. As bad as these priorities are for our domestic policies, they are worse if they define the way we manage globalization.

The key to the treasure buried in Figure 1 is power relationships. To understand what happened, ask, “Who has the power to take 93% of all new wealth and how did they get that power? The new moral and social values give legitimacy to policies that favor those at the top of our economy.

We give more bargaining power and influence to the wealthy, who already have plenty of both, while reducing bargaining power for workers. In this new narrative, workers and unions destroyed Detroit (for instance) by not lowering our living standards fast enough.

In the new moral view, anyone making “poor choices” is responsible for his or her own ruin. The unfortunate are seen as unworthy moochers and parasites. We disparage teachers, government workers, the long-term unemployed, and immigrants.

In this era, popular media figures are spiteful and divisive.

Our policies have made all workers feel contingent, at risk, and powerless. Millions of part-time workers must please their employer to get hours. Millions more in the gig economy work without benefits and have no job security at all. Recent college graduates carry so much debt that they cannot invest, take risk on a new career, or rock the boat. Millions of undocumented workers are completely powerless in the labor market, and subject to wage theft. They have negative power in the labor market!

We are creating a new American aristocracy, with less opportunity – less social mobility and weaker social cohesion than any other advanced country. We are falling behind in many measures of well-being.

The dysfunctions of our post-1970 moral, social, political and economic system make it incapable of dealing with climate change or inequality, arguably the two greatest challenges of our time. We are failing our children and the next generations.

X marks the spot. In this case, “X” is our choice of national values. We abandoned traditional American values that built a great and prosperous nation. Our power relationships are sour.

We can start rebuilding our social cohesion when we say all work has dignity. Workers earn a share of the wealth we create. We all do better, when we all do better. My prosperity depends on a prosperous community with opportunity and fairness.

Dig there.

The Middle-Class Squeeze Isn’t Made Up

My Comments: Are you a middle-class American? I used to be and may still be, but those like me are a dying breed. The economic devastation now engulfing a huge portion of Texas is going to reverbrate across the nation. Apart from the humanitarian crisis, it will add to the unseen crisis affecting middle class America.

Economic inequality led to the downfall of the Democratic Party last November. It’s manifest by the lower economic expectations of those who live in rural America, by those whose education is no longer enough to get ahead, and still pervasive social discrimination against those not white enough. To Trumps credit, he saw the problem and built a movement, even if he is likely to waste the opportunity.

Like many ‘economic’ essays, this may be hard for you to get through. But to the extent you want to preserve the underlying goodness of this nation, and protect yourself along the way, you would benefit from a better understanding of the problem.

By Barry Ritholtz / Feb 15, 2017

Benjamin Disraeli is reputed to have said “There are three type of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

Today let’s address the third component of Disraeli’s formulation in the context of a recent National Review article with the headline, “The Myth of the Stagnating Middle Class.” The article observes that “more Americans have easier lives today than in years past.”

To regular readers, this is a variant of the assertion that “common folk live better today than royalty did in earlier times,” a claim we debunked two years ago. The current argument is more nuanced in that it: a) relies on a few statistical twists; b) contains statements that are true but don’t support the main claim; and c) is an argument against Donald Trump’s populism from the political right. It all has the general appearance of plausibility until you start digging.

This is where we come in.

Let’s begin with the claim that more Americans have easier lives today than in years past. This is true and almost always has been. Progress is humanity’s default setting ever since our ancestors climbed down from the trees and began walking upright on the African savanna.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the standard of living for all Americans has been rising for many years, mainly because of technological advances. However, the main issue under discussion is actually about how the economic benefits of the U.S. economy get apportioned across the populace.

In other words, how the wealth is distributed. The National Review engages in a statistical sleight of hand that distracts from this.

For further insight I spoke with Salil Mehta, who teaches at Columbia and Georgetown, and is perhaps best known for his role as the top numbers-cruncher in the federal government’s $700 billion TARP bank bailout plan in the financial crisis.

Mehta made short work of the article:
The article is a peculiar mixture of motivating facts and fantasy logic, which is what makes cherry-picking statistics unsafe for policy conversation. The main issue with the piece is that that it continuously mixes and matches data to fit a fated narrative.

Mehta further observed that the National Review argument included in some cases various classes of Americans (such as minorities and immigrants), while excluding them at other times in statistics. This kind of data cherry-picking is always a red flag.

Consider for a moment how the Pew Research Center did its big research report, “The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground”: The report, which actually figures in the National Review article, analyzed the Current Population Survey from 1971 to 2015. It used data drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has well-established standards for managing data and making empirical comparisons.

Maybe it’s best to make the point with two of the more telling charts in the report. Here’s the first one, showing that income growth for the middle class has trailed that of the upper class:

The second chart (below) shows that the wealth gap between the upper and middle classes also widened significantly (even after the losses from the financial crisis):

Best practice in these circumstances is to go to the original data source, cite it and analyze it in a way that is consistent, regardless of whether the outcome supports your conclusion.

As I’ve said before, there are many reasons to dislike this economic recovery: it has been lumpy and unevenly distributed by geography, by industry and by level of educational attainment. Much of that has harmed people who were once considered middle class. Add to this the decades-long impact of automation, globalization and the decline in labor’s bargaining power, and it adds up to economic stagnation for the middle class.

But wage and wealth stagnation alone don’t account for the full measure of middle-class angst. Inflation and its components also play a part. Prices for things we want have been deflating, while the cost of things we need have been going up. Mobile phones, computers and flat-panel TV are better and dollar-for-dollar cheaper than ever. The same is true for cars, which in a few years will likely be self-driving.

But those are mostly wants. When it comes to needs, it’s a different story. Housing, even after the 2008-09 crack-up, is expensive. Rentals have gone straight up as home ownership has fallen. The costs of education have skyrocketed and show no signs of slowing. Medical and health-insurance costs are among the fastest-rising of all consumer expenses.

The National Review article concludes by saying, “Government can’t fix that problem, because that problem doesn’t really exist.”

Wishing that a problem doesn’t exist doesn’t make it vanish. But it does offer some insight into why the Republican Party was blindsided by the rise of Donald Trump and his populist appeal. It isn’t that the party elite was myopic, but that it actively fabricated a bubble into which no contrary information was allowed entry. The troubling thing is that the GOP is still at it.

Middle-class anxiety has been building for more than a decade and it mixed in the last election with a general sense of frustration with America’s leadership class. No wonder the middle class feels squeezed — because it is.

Global Markets: Traders Put Record Cash To Work

My Comments: I recall a saying to the effect ‘pride goeth before a fall’. Rampant enthusiasm about investing across the market spectrum probably suggests the same thing. Of course, there’s always a follow up question about how much pride is necessary to trigger a fall. Just know that one is coming and if it concerns you, there are remedies.

Joe Ciolli  /  Jul 23, 2017

In global markets, all signs of sentiment are pointing up. And it’s that very unbridled enthusiasm that could spell their downfall.

But before we get into the negative implications, let’s take stock of everything that shows just how overtly bullish investors are feeling right now.

First, private client cash levels have dropped to a record low as a percentage of total assets, according to data compiled by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That means investors are feeling more emboldened than ever to put that money to work in the market. They’re choosing that over holding money on the sidelines — a risk-averse move typically associated with uncertainty.

Institutional investors are also holding the lowest levels of cash since the start of the eight-year bull market, survey data compiled by Citigroup show. The measure now sits at less than one-third of a multi-year high reached in 2016.

Second, active equity funds just absorbed their biggest inflows in 2 1/2 years, according to BAML. This is a sign of confidence not just for the market, but for fund managers that make their living picking stocks. It’s a rare bright spot for active management, which has struggled alongside the rise of the red-hot ETF industry.

Third and lastly, in perhaps the most direct reflection of swelling confidence, global markets are hitting records. The S&P 500 and its more tech-heavy counterpart, the Nasdaq 100, hit all-time highs this past week. The gauges are up 265% and 466%, respectively, over the course of the bull market.

Meanwhile, credit indexes have done the same amid 30 straight weeks of investment-grade bond inflows, BAML data show.

What’s resulted is the so-called “Icarus trade,” which has been characterized by the “melt up” seen in risk assets since the start of 2016.

But there’s a downside to flying too close to the proverbial sun — sooner or later, your wings will melt. BAML sees that happening in the second half of the year as the bullish conditions outlined above overheat further.

A “big fall in markets” will be an “autumn, not summer event,” strategists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote in a client note. “Icarus won’t soar forever.”

The comments echo ones made by BAML the week before last, when they cited central bank tightening as a threat to the gradual trek higher in risk assets.

So where do we stand right now? Despite the gloomy late-2017 forecast from BAML, it’s actually a great time to be an equity investor. Company stock prices are moving more than ever on the earnings reports that are trickling out, representing a big potential windfall in the short-term for traders willing to do their homework.

The Danger From Low-Skilled Immigrants: Not Having Them

My Comments: To Make America Great Again, the presumably well intentioned mantra for those leading the GOP these days, someone has to overcome ignorance of economics and start paying attention to reality.

A positive corporate bottom line is the driving force for a healthy US economy. To reach that goal, we need people willing to spend time in the trenches doing whatever grunt work is necessary. Despite machines that increasingly automate the grunt work, a supply of young people has to match the demand created until artificial intelligence takes over.

The supply of labor is not going to miraculously appear. A greater number of us are old and fragile, and fertility rates among young men are declining. Exactly who is going to look after all us old folks because we refuse to hurry up and die?

We should be encouraging immigration and refugees. Yes, there is a potential security threat, which implies applying resources to screen and maintain a reasonable level of security. And yes, someone is probably going to get killed or maimed or whatever when someone nefarious sneaks through.

The laws of supply and demand are well known. Right now we have an increasing demand for labor, which can only stabilize with either more people being allowed into the country, or a large increase in the cost of labor to force more of into the trenches. Either that or starve, in which case you die. Some would have that happen since dead people are less likely to vote against those wanting to restrict immigration.

Eduardo Porter \ August 8, 2017

Let’s just say it plainly: The United States needs more low-skilled immigrants.

You might consider, for starters, the enormous demand for low-skilled workers, which could well go unmet as the baby boom generation ages out of the labor force, eroding the labor supply. Eight of the 15 occupations expected to experience the fastest growth between 2014 and 2024 — personal care and home health aides, food preparation workers, janitors and the like — require no schooling at all.

“Ten years from now, there are going to be lots of older people with relatively few low-skilled workers to change their bedpans,” said David Card, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “That is going to be a huge problem.”

But the argument for low-skilled immigration is not just about filling an employment hole. The millions of immigrants of little skill who swept into the work force in the 25 years up to the onset of the Great Recession — the men washing dishes in the back of the restaurant, the women emptying the trash bins in office buildings — have largely improved the lives of Americans.

The politics of immigration are driven, to this day, by the proposition that immigrant laborers take the jobs and depress the wages of Americans competing with them in the work force. It is a mechanical statement of the law of supply and demand: More workers spilling in over the border will inevitably reduce the price of work.

This proposition underpins President Trump’s threat to get rid of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country. It is used to justify his plan to cut legal immigration into the country by half and create a point system to ensure that only immigrants with high skills are allowed entrance in the future.

But it is largely wrong. It misses many things: that less-skilled immigrants are also consumers of American-made goods and services; that their cheap labor raises economic output and also reduces prices. It misses the fact that their children tend to have substantially more skills. In fact, the children of immigrants contribute more to state fiscal coffers than do other native-born Americans, according to a report by the National Academies.