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Works and Days

The Terrifying New Normal

September 3rd, 2012 - 6:04 pm

The World We Don’t Question

I’ve witnessed two of the most radical developments in my lifetime the last four years — changes far greater than those brought on by the massive new increases in the national debt, the soaring gas costs, the radical decrease in average family income, the insolvent Medicare and Social Security trajectories, or the flat housing market.

One is the fact of less than 1% interest rates on most savings (well below the rate of inflation), and the other is an epidemic of 20-something unemployment. All that is the new normal.

Why Save?

The hallmark advice of retirement planning was always to scrimp, save, and put away enough money to make up for retirement’s lost salary, increasing medical bills, and the supposed good life of the “golden years.” If a couple had saved, say, $300,000 over a lifetime (again, say, putting $500 away each month for 30 years at modest compounded interest), then they might expect a so-so annual return at 5% of about $15,000 a year on their stash, or about $1,250 per month.

In other words, perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Retiree could find enough with Social Security to live okay and pass on the principal to their kids. But well aside from the fact that many Americans have been laid off, taken pay cuts, lost home equity, had their 401(k)s pruned, or had to take care of out-of-work relatives, there is no 5% any more on anything, not even 2% or  in most cases 1%.  Saving money means nothing really in terms of return, only the realization that inflation eats away the principal each year.

To earn a decent return, the retiree has had to wade into bonds, stocks, and real estate buying and selling, with all their attendant risks that loom larger after 65. The old American idea of receiving a fair so-so interest on a little money in the savings account vanished. And no one seems to care.

The Federal Reserve perhaps had its reasons to keep interest rates low, given the massive spending, 2008 collapse, and the anemic “recovery,” but whatever the purported aims, the policy is not working. Yet cheap money proves to be no stimulus, even at rock-bottom interest rates. Firms don’t seem to think that near-zero interest (and the banks now have a rather scandalous margin between what they charge for ordinary loans and what they pay in interest) balances out the new anxiety over tax hikes, more regulations, and spiking energy costs. (Did Obama believe that employers simply existed to pay ever more taxes for his growing technocracy to redistribute?)

In classical Roman Republican terms, near-zero interest (and calls for “cancellation of debt and redistribution of property”) represented a vast transfer of wealth from those who saved to those who owe. Imagine a contemporary version of Catiline yelling, “If elected, I promise we won’t pay those SOB one-percenters any more than a third of a percent on their not-pay-their-fair-share stashes.” At least that way we might have known what we were dealing with.

The Really Lost Generation

Few seem to note that those who receive nothing on their retirement savings don’t retire so easily. And when they don’t retire, jobs don’t open up — which brings us to my next observation: the lost generation of those between 21 and 30, who at various ages and periods came into the workplace the last four years. Many have 8% plus student loans. I doubt half of those will ever be paid off, given the epidemic of unemployment in this cohort.

Unemployment rates of those 16-24 are now officially over 50%. Even the cohort between 16 and 29 suffers from 45% unemployment. In short, in four years we have become Europeanized: young people with no jobs who are living at home and putting off marriage and child raising — a “lost” generation in “limbo,” etc. etc. They may have a car, borrow their parents’ nicer car for special occasions, watch their parents’ big screen TV, and have pocket change for a cell phone and laptop by enjoying free rent, food, and laundry, but beneath that thinning technological veneer there is really little hope that they will ever be able to maintain that lifestyle on their own in this present day and age. Meanwhile, just like some Middle East tribal society, “contacts,” “networking,” and “pull” are the new gospel, as parents rely on quid pro quos to offer their indebted, unemployed (and aging) children some sort of inside one-upmanship in the cutthroat job market.

Note that as a poor substitute for a job, we institutionalized something called the “internship.” The best I can tell (I get weekly barrages of inquiries from young people wanting to “intern”), you would enjoy the work of free workers who in exchange for their uncompensated labor gather skills and influence that translate at some nebulous date into real work. How odd that the government that fines an employer who does not duly pay proper overtime wages is not interested in the tens of millions of youth who are working largely as Spartan helots.

These new realities fall heavily on the young male. Traditionally, he was in charge of taking charge — working two jobs to acquire enough to seed a marriage and family or buy a house, striving to be the protector of the household, and accruing experience in his late twenties that would translate into needed promotions in his thirties that would later on pay for braces, kids’ camp, and college tuitions.

No more. We have become emasculated Italians, our economy ossified and socialized to such an extent that few are taking risks to open new businesses in Illinois, build a pipeline across Nebraska, plant a 600-acre irrigated field, or open a timber mill or mine in California. Only so many of the unemployed can land a government job monitoring delta smelt populations or suing to shut down another power plant. In other words, I don’t think Barack Obama at the convention this week is going to be bragging too much about “millions of new green jobs,” more subsidies to Solyndra clones, another stimulus, keeping the deficit at $1 trillion plus, another federal takeover, more juicy details about Obamacare, higher taxes on the greedy, another gas lease denied, or yet more pipelines tabled. He may wish to continue all that, but he surely won’t wish to tell us so.

The new model for the next generation is to cobble part-time work together, intern, occasionally draw on unemployment, send out resumes hourly, and hope for something to turn up (preferably in government, state or federal). We all witness the reality behind these statistics firsthand. When we travel we see more and more older people at work, often well into their 70s. I know 50 or so young offspring of friends, relatives, and associates who are desperately trying to find work.

Some other symptoms: There is a new backlash at colleges, which habitually lie to students about the value of their degrees and care more that their offices of diversity are staffed well and their vice provosts for external relations are hitting all the necessary conferences — at least far more than they worry that their tuition increases have yearly soared well beyond the rates of inflation. The federal government, of course, has masked such excess with subsidized loan-sharking. I asked some young people recently what their various (and all had confusing loan “packages”) “subsidized” student loan interest rates were. Most said between 6 and 9% (as their parents get .25% of their own savings).

I don’t know where this all leads. The aging baby boomers are not going to have the retirements that they envisioned, and their children are not going to have the good jobs their baby-boomer parents enjoyed. The more I talk to those my age (58), the more I hear that they are madly trying to save money, buy an extra house, get a good used car — all for their children who may not otherwise ever have a savings account, a home, or reliable transportation. The ancient wisdom was always “don’t spoil your kids,” “no one helped me after 18,” and “keep it up and they will never fend for themselves.” All true.

But these days, the game has changed somewhat — or rather been downscaled: the PhD is not being hired for anything other than part-time teaching; the JD is reduced to the law library gofer; the freshly minted MD is the equivalent of a salaried, high-paid nurse; the credentialed high-school teacher is subbing; the engineer is a draftsman; the carpenter is cobbling together home repair mini-jobs. The new plum job? Landing one of those federal or state regulatorships, inspectorships, or clerkships, which are paid for with borrowed money,  produce little, and grow as those they audit and fine shrink.

In other words, we are seeing the proverbial chickens coming home to roost in an economy that has run up $16 trillion in debt, regulated its way into paralysis, hounded the private sector, and demonized profit-making. The strange thing about the 2008 disaster was not just that hand-in-glove with Wall Street banks Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae created a huge real estate bubble and then watched it pop (one inflated through private speculation and government-backed sub-prime loans), but that the blame went not to the intrusive, incompetent federal government or even to a Goldman-Sachs-like bundler (a firm from whom Obama got more campaign money than did any other prior presidential candidate), but to the vague “private sector” — as if the well-driller or timber man had somehow collapsed the economy. The result was that Obama’s medicine from 2009 onward was worse than the original disease.

Oh, one other thing. We don’t see any more of those funny, though obnoxious, bumper stickers  with the words “We are spending our children’s inheritance” on huge Winnebagos as they zoom by. Perhaps that’s because there are not so many inheritances any more or the children (now in their late 20s) are inside the Winnebago on vacation with their parents. Or maybe the parents sold the Winnebago and are working at Starbucks.

Finally, where does all this lead? To a great deal of pressure and expectations upon a Mitt Romney, whom a growing number of people seem willing to entrust with the remedy to Obama’s Hellenic malady. The more Obama tsk-tsks saving the Utah Winter Olympics or creating a Bain Capital, the more the strapped public may say “bring it on.”

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)

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