This is the most fundamental measure of the success or the failure of any political system or culture. Are the legal and social rules we live under aiding our economic development or holding us back? What do the numbers say?
Unfortunately, it’s a harder question to answer than it should be. The problem is, we don’t have a sound currency with which to measure GDP through time. Until 1971, the U.S. dollar was defined as a certain amount of gold. And the price of gold was fixed by international agreement. It didn’t actually begin to trade freely until 1975. Therefore, the value of the U.S. dollar (and thus the value of U.S. production, which is measured in dollars) was manipulated higher for many years.
Even today, our government’s nominal GDP figures are greatly influenced by inflation. The influence of inflation is particularly pernicious in GDP studies. You see, inflation, which actually reduces our standard of living, drives up the amount of nominal GDP. So it creates the appearance of a wealthier country…while the nation is actually getting poorer.
The only real way to accurately measure per-capita GDP is to build our own model. The need to build our own tools tells you something important – the government doesn’t want anyone to know the answer to this question. It could easily publish data far more accurate than the indexes it puts out. But government doesn’t want anyone to know. And it wants to be able to say “those aren’t the real data” when studies like ours produce bad news.
So pay attention to how we built our charts. You can see for yourself that our data are far more accurate than the government’s figures. Our data are based on the real purchasing power of the currency, not the nominal numbers, which are completely meaningless in the real world.
The question we are trying to answer is: What would per-capita GDP numbers look like, if we used a real-world currency, like gold, or a basket of commodity prices, instead of the paper-based U.S. dollar? What would the figures be if we measured GDP in sound money instead of the government’s funny money?
Here’s how we figured it out. We took the government numbers for nominal GDP and measured them first against commodity prices, and later (after it began to trade freely) gold. We used a standard commodity index (the CRB) up to 1975 and gold post-1975. The result of this analysis shows you the real trend in U.S. per-capita GDP, as measured on a real-world purchasing power basis.
Our analysis shows you what’s actually happened to our real standard of living. The results, we suspect, will surprise even the most bearish among you.
America is in a steep decline.
Americans Are Getting Poorer – Fast
Let me anticipate the “official” criticism of our study. Many people will claim that our numbers aren’t “real.” They will say that we “mined” the data to produce a chart that showed a steep decline.
That’s simply not so. All we’ve done is convert the government’s nominal GDP stats into a fixed currency value that’s based on real-world purchasing power. The fact is, our data are far more accurate than the government’s because they represent the real-world experience. That’s why our data are far more closely correlated to other real-world studies of wealth in America.
Consider, for example, annual sales of automobiles. Auto sales peaked in 1985 (11 million) and have been declining at a fairly steady rate since 1999. In 2009, Americans bought just 5.4 million passenger cars. As a result, the median age of a registered vehicle in the U.S. is almost 10 years.
Our data shows that real per-capita wealth peaked in the late 1960s. Guess when we find the absolutely lowest median age of the U.S. fleet? In 1969. At the end of the 1960s, the median age of all the cars on the road in the U.S. was only 5.1 years. Even as recently as 1990, the median age was only 6.5 years.
Rich people buy new cars. Poor people do not.
Most important, our data “proves” something I know many of you have felt or perceived for many years. You’ve seen the decline of your neighborhoods. You’ve gone years without being able to earn more money in your job. Or you’ve seen your purchasing power decrease to the point where you’re now substituting lower-quality products on your grocery list for the brand-name products you used to buy.
You can see how much harder it is on your children to find good jobs, to buy good housing or a new car. As a result, few people under the age of 40 have the same kind of “life story” as their parents.
And because they can’t “make it,” many have decided to “fake it.” The average college student now graduates with $24,000 in debt…and by his late 20s has racked up more than $6,000 in credit card debt. Meanwhile, median earnings for Americans aged 25-34 equals $34,000-$38,000. (Source: Demos.org, “The Economic State of Young America,” November 2011.)
Can you imagine starting your life out as an adult with a personal debt-to-income level at close to 100%? What does this say about the state of our economy? What does this say about the state of our culture?
Who Suffers Most
It’s not only the young that are having trouble in America. It is also the old.
Debt levels among households headed by people older than 62 have been rising for two decades. The average mortgage size for this population is now $71,000 – five times larger than it was in 1987 (adjusted for inflation), according to William Apgar of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Older Americans are also more reliant on credit card debt than ever before…credit card debt. From 1992 through 2007 (which is the latest data available) older Americans took on credit card debt at a faster pace than the population as a whole. According to USA Today, lower- and middle-income Americans aged 65 and older now carry an average of more than $10,000 in credit card debt, up 26% since only 2005.
Given average interest rates of 20% for these debts, it’s a fair bet that these obligations will never be repaid. But they will have a terrible impact on the standard of living of these older Americans.
What in the heck is going on? Don’t Americans pay off their mortgages before they retire? Don’t they work hard during their careers, save, and invest, so they can move to Florida and spend their retirement in comfort?
Older Americans living with credit card debt! This doesn’t sound like America, does it? Or maybe it does.
My bet is that most of my subscribers know that something has gone terribly wrong with America. It’s not easy to figure out how all of this happened…but you know from your own experiences that these numbers aren’t wrong. It might not be pleasant to think about…but these figures paint a sad but accurate picture: America is not the country it was 40 years ago. These changes are warping our economy, politics, and culture.
In this month’s issue, I’d like to try to define a few of the core reasons we’re in this situation. I can’t possibly analyze all the factors that have led to this decline. But I want to document the growth of graft in politics. I want to demonstrate – with real facts and examples – how public company leadership has deteriorated. And I want to document some of the things that are occurring in the broader society, all of which I believe are linked to this fundamental decline in our standard of living.
You see, I believe the decline of our country is primarily a decline of our culture.