Archive for the ‘Housing’ Category
One of the subthemes of current discussions about how best to reduce our national debt is that we must reign in out-of-control spending on federal safety net programs. The reality is quite different.
The chart below shows spending trends in terms of GDP for the ten major needs-tested benefit programs that make-up our federal social safety net. The programs, in the order listed on the chart, are:
- The refundable portion of the health insurance tax credit enacted in the 2010 health care reform law
- Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Financial assistance for post-secondary students (Pell Grants)
- Compensatory Education Grants to school districts
- Assisted Housing
- The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
- The Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Family Support Payments
As Jared Bernstein explains:
for all the popular wisdom that programs to help low-income people are swallowing the economy, the truth is that like so much else that plagues our fiscal future, it’s all about health care spending. The figure shows that as a share of GDP, prior to the Great Recession, non-health care spending was cruising along at around 1.5% for decades. It was Medicaid/CHIP (Medicaid expansion for kids) that did most of the growing.
Regardless, the recent explosion in the ratio of Medicare/CHIP spending to GDP is largely due to the severity of the Great Recession, not the generosity of the programs. The recession increased poverty and thus eligibility for the programs, thereby pushing up the numerator, while simultaneously lowering GDP, the denominator. Moreover, spending on all non-health care safety net programs is on course to dramatically decline as a share of GDP. Even Medicare/Chip spending is projected to stabilize as a share of GDP.
These programs are essential given the poor performance of the economy and in most cases poorly funded. Cutting their budgets will not only deny people access to health care, housing, education, and food, it will also further weaken the economy, in both the short and long run.
The following two charts taken from a Center for Economic Policy and Research Center study by John Schmitt and Janelle Jones highlight the distressed nature of the U.S. labor market and the need for raising the minimum wage and strengthening union organizing.
Schmitt and Jones define low wage work as that work paying $10.00 an hour or less in 2011 dollars. As the charts show, low wage workers are far more educated and older in 2011 than in 1979. Said differently, education and experience are not sufficient to ensure a living wage.
Not surprisingly, growing numbers of low wage workers at Walmart and at chain fast food restaurants have begun engaging in direct action for higher wages and better working conditions. They deserve our support.
Politicians always seem to be talking about the middle class. They need some new focus groups. According to the Pew Research Center, over the past four years the percentage of adult Americans that say they are in the lower class has risen significantly, from a quarter to almost one-third (see chart below).
Pew also found that the demographic profile of the self-defined lower class has also changed. Young people, according to Pew, “are disproportionately swelling the ranks of the self-defined lower classes.” More specifically some 40% of those between 18 to 29 years of age now identify as being in the lower classs compared to only 25% in 2008.
Strikingly the percentage of whites and blacks that see themselves in the lower class is now basically equal. The percentage of whites who consider themselves in the lower class rose from less than a quarter in 2008 to 31% in 2012. This brought them in line with blacks, whose percentage remained at a third. The percentage of Latinos describing themselves as lower class rose to 40%, a ten percentage point increase from 2008.
And not surprisingly, as the chart below shows, many who self-identify as being in the lower class are experiencing great hardships. In fact, one in three faced four or all five of the problem addressed in the survey.
In short, there is a lot of hurting in our economy.
Mainstream economics is largely built on theories that assume that people are best understood as highly competitive and individualistic maximizing agents. In fact, capitalism is said to be the most desirable economic system ever constructed precisely because its laws of motion are in sync with these traits. Capitalism’s desirability is easily called into question, however, if people highly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity. After all, capitalist imperatives tend to work against the development of social conditions and institutions that promote these values.
Many supporters of capitalism draw upon studies of non-human animal behavior to defend their assumptions about human nature. But, as the Ted Talk by Frans de Waal found here (and below) demonstrates, non-human animals also greatly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity.
After watching the video take a few moments to imagine an economic system that builds upon these attractive values, then compare the policies that would be helpful to create it with the policies we currently promote to strengthen our existing economic system. For example, how would this foundational shift influence our thinking about how best to organize production, relate production decisions to social and community needs, structure the ownership of society’s productive assets, and so on.
Economic recoveries often depend on the state of the housing market. While an April increase in housing prices has led many analysts to talk of a housing recovery, U.S. home values still remain depressed (see the chart below). According to a Zillow real estate research report, they are still some 25% below their 2007 peak.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of the state of the housing market is that, as of the first quarter 2012, 31.4% of all owner-occupied homeowners with a mortgage were ”underwater,” which means they had a mortgage greater than the market value of their home. As the table below shows, these homeowners owed, on average, $75,644 more than what their home was worth.
To this point, the high percentage of underwater homeowners represents, in the words of Zillow, only “a potential danger.” That is because “the majority of underwater homeowners continue to make regular payments on their mortgage, with only 10.1% percent of the 31.4% nationwide being delinquent.” The following figure highlights the percent of delinquent/underwater homeowners in the largest metropolitan areas.
At the same time, as Zillow notes:
With nearly a third of the nation’s mortgaged homeowners in negative equity and the average underwater homeowner having a home value that is 31 percent lower than their mortgage balance, negative equity will prove both to be difficult to fully eradicate near-term and to have pernicious effects longer term as some households continue to encounter short-term financial trouble even with a slowly improving broader economy. Should economic growth slow, more homeowners will not be able to make timely mortgage payments, thereby increasing delinquency rates and eventually foreclosures.
In other words, if the economy slows, or interest rates rise, two very likely possibilities, the housing market could deteriorate quickly, intensifying economic problems. In short, we are a long way from recovery.
China is widely celebrated as an economic success story. And it is as far as GDP, investment, and export growth is concerned. However, as we know well from our experience in the United States, such economic indicators often reveal little about the reality of people’s lives. In China workers are subject to intense working conditions with a disproportionate share of the benefits of production going to a top few. For example, as Bloomberg News notes:
The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the president and his Cabinet, and the nine Supreme Court justices.
The net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.
The income gain by NPC members reflects the imbalances in economic growth in China, where per capita annual income in 2010 was $2,425, less than in Belarus and a fraction of the $37,527 in the U.S. The disparity points to the challenges that China’s new generation of leaders, to be named this year, faces in countering a rise in social unrest fueled by illegal land grabs and corruption.
“It is extraordinary to see this degree of a marriage of wealth and politics,” said Kenneth Liberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Washtington’s Brookings Institution. “It certainly lends vivid texture to the widespread complaints in China about an extreme inequality of wealth in the country now.”
Growing numbers of Chinese workers and farmers have been engaged in workplace and community struggles in opposition to corporate and government policies, especially those designed to intensify the privatization, deregulation, and liberalization of the Chinese economy. The number and determination of participants in these struggles has forced business and government leaders on the defensive.
Recently, the People’s Daily ran an editorial calling for renewed commitment to “reform” in an attempt to shore up support for the government’s neoliberal policies. The editorial appears to have triggered growing discussions and debates on and off the internet among academics and activists about alternatives.
One concrete outcome from these discussions and debates is a 16 point proposal which was developed collectively and recently published on the Red China website; it has gained significant support. The following is an English translation of the proposal by the China Study Club at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Reading it provides a window into political developments in China and also highlights the similarity of struggles in China and the United States.
A SIXTEEN-POINT PROPOSAL ON CHINA’S REFORM
1. That the personal and family wealth of all officials be publicized and their source clarified, and all “naked bureaucrats” be expelled from the Party and the government. (“Naked bureaucrats” refer to those officials whose family lives in developed countries and whose assets have been transferred abroad, leaving nothing but him/herself in China.)
2. That the National Congress concretely exercises its legislative and monitory function, comprehensively review the economic policies implemented by the state council, and defend our national economic security.
3. That the existing pension plans be consolidated and retirees be treated equally regardless of sector and rank.
4. That elementary and secondary education be provided free of charge throughout the country; compensation for rural teachers be substantially raised and educational resources be allocated on equal terms across urban and rural areas; and the state assume the responsibility of raising and educating vagrant youth.
5. That the charges of higher education be lowered, and public higher education gradually become fully public-funded and free of charge.
6. That the proportion of state expenditure on education be increased to and beyond international average level.
7. That the price and charge of basic and critical medicines and medical services be managed by the state in an open and planned manner; the price of all medical services and medicines should be determined and enforced by the state in view of social demand and actual cost of production.
8. That heavy progressive real estate taxes be levied on owners of two or more residential housings, so as to alleviate severe financial inequality and improve housing availability.
9. That a nation-wide anti-corruption online platform be established, where all PRC citizens may file report or grievance on corruption or abuse instances; the state should investigate in openly accountable manner and promptly publicized the result.
10. That the state of national resources and environmental security be comprehensively assessed, exports of rare, strategic minerals be immediately cut down and soon stopped, and reserve of various strategic materials be established.
11. That we pursue a self-reliant approach to economic development; any policy that serves foreign capitalists at the cost of the interest of Chinese working class should be abolished.
12. That labor laws be concretely implemented, sweatshops be thoroughly investigated; enterprises with arrears of wage, illegal use of labor, or detrimental working condition should be closed down if they fail to meet legal requirements even after lawfully limited term for self-correction.
13. That the coal industry be nationalized across the board, all coal mine workers receive the same level of compensation as state-owned enterprise mine workers do, and enjoy paid vacation and state-funded medical service.
14. That the personal and family wealth of managerial personnel in state-owned enterprises be publicized; the compensation of such personnel should be determined by the corresponding level of people’s congress.
15. That all governmental overhead expenses be restricted; purchase of automobile with state funds be restricted; all unnecessary traveling in the name of “research abroad” be suspended.
16. That the losses of public assets during the “reforms” be thoroughly traced, responsible personnel be investigated, and those guilty of stealing public properties be apprehended and openly tried.
Sadly, despite predictions of a housing recovery, housing prices are still heading downward, at least according to the well respected S&P Case-Shiller Index. The most recent data, which takes the index through November, shows price declines of 1.3 percent for both the 10- and 20-City Composites in November over October. The two Composites posted annual returns of -3.6% and -3.7% versus November 2010, respectively (see chart below).
The following chart looks at actual home values rather than their yearly price change. As of November 2011, average home prices across the United States were back to where they were in mid-2003. Measured from their June/July 2006 peaks through November 2011, the peak-to-current decline for both the 10-City Composite and 20-City Composite was -32.9%.
A January 22, 2012 New York Times story, The iEconomy: How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work, has been getting a lot of coverage. The article makes clear that Apple and other major multinational corporations have moved production to China not only to take advantage of low wages but also to exploit a labor environment that gives them maximum flexibility. The following quote gives a flavor for what attracts Apple to China:
One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”
The article highlights these conditions to make the point that manufacturing is not coming back to the United States because these conditions cannot be replicated in the United States.
One aspect not stressed in the article is that many of the labor policies described are actually against the law in China and contrary to Apple’s own claims about its labor standards. See William K. Black’s analysis here.
If you are interested in a more detailed picture of just what goes into making Apple products so profitable you should listen to or read the transcript of a This American Life radio segment which aired in January. The segment is based on a Mike Daisey performance in front of a small audience. Mike is a self proclaimed technology geek who just adores Apple products. At least that was before he visited the Foxconn (Taiwanese multinational corporation owned) factory located in China in which many Apple products are assembled. The program discusses the labor conditions at Foxconn and other similar multinational corporations operating in China.
These multinational corporations have helped make China the world’s top exporter of manufacturers, both overall and of high technology goods more specifically. China’s share of world exports of information and communication technology products (such as computers and office machines; and telecom, audio and video equipment) has grown from 3 percent in 1992 to 24 percent 2006, and its share of electrical goods (such as semiconductors) from 4 percent to 21 percent over the same period. Of course, while these exports are officially recorded as Chinese exports, approximately 60 percent of all Chinese exports and 85 percent of all Chinese high technology exports are produced by foreign companies operating in China.
The issue here isn’t one of China stealing manufacturing jobs from the United States or other developed countries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, total manufacturing employment in China actually fell by over 9 million over the period 1994-2006, from 120.8 million to 111.61 million. Total urban manufacturing employment, which would include most foreign operations, declined sharply from 54.92 million to 33.52 million.
In fact, China’s growth has generated few decent employment opportunities for urban workers, regardless of their employment sector. The International Labor Organization did an extensive study of urban employment over the period 1990 to 2002. Although total urban employment increased slightly, almost all the growth was in irregular employment, meaning casual-wage or self-employment—typically in construction, cleaning and maintenance of premises, retail trade, street vending, repair services, or domestic services. More specifically, while total urban employment over this thirteen-year period grew by 81.7 million, 80 million of that growth was in irregular employment. As a result, irregular workers in China now comprise the largest single urban employment category.
The issue here isn’t even one of China versus the United States. It also isn’t one of dictatorship versus democracy. Rather it is one of capitalism’s logic. Said simply, large multinational corporations and their allies in both the United States and China have successfully created a global system of production and consumption that gives them maximum freedom of operation. It is this logic that keeps pushing more free trade agreements, attempts to create more flexible labor markets, and more attractive conditions for business investment, both here and in China. And it is this logic that needs to be challenged on both sides of the Pacific.
The Federal Reserve Bank recently released 1,197 pages of transcripts of its 2006 closed door meetings. As the Wall Street Journal comments: “The transcripts paint the most detailed picture yet of how top officials at the central bank didn’t anticipate the storm about to hit the U.S. economy and the global financial system.”
Federal Reserve officials suspected that housing prices were peaking (see chart below). But since they didn’t believe that prices had been driven up by a well entrenched bubble, they were not very concerned that they were coming down.
The Financial Times described the general Federal Reserve stance as follows:
Almost every Fed policymaker concluded that weaker housing would cause a slowdown in consumption and investment but expected that to offset strength elsewhere in the economy, leading to continued growth overall.
“Housing is the crucial issue. To get a soft landing, we need some cooling in housing,” said Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, in his summing up of the economic situation in March 2006. “I think we are unlikely to see growth being derailed by the housing market.” . . . .
Indeed, a number of Fed officials saw the housing slowdown as welcome news that would help resolve a potential threat to the economy. “As to housing, we are in fact, as all have noted, squeezing out of that sector the speculative excesses that developed with the low interest rates of recent years — and doing so is unavoidable if we want to correct the sector,” said Thomas Hoenig, then president of the Kansas City Fed, at the September 2006 meeting of the FOMC.
The transcripts show that the Federal Reserve was so confident that the economy was on solid footing that many officials were, according to the Wall Street Journal:
offering praise for outgoing Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who attended his final Fed meeting in January 2006. Timothy Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and now Treasury Secretary, playfully offered this forecast about Mr. Greenspan’s legacy: “I think the risk that we decide in the future that you’re even better than we think is higher than the alternative.” . . . .
The transcripts also suggest that Fed officials misgauged the potential for housing problems to spill over into the broader economy.
“Our recent financial-market data don’t, in my view, provide a convincing case for a substantial increase in the probability of a much weaker path for growth going forward,” Mr. Geithner said at a meeting in December 2006.
So how did the best and the brightest get it so wrong. Perhaps the major reason is because it served their interests to pretend there was no housing bubble. The recovery from our 2001 recession was driven by consumption and that consumption was supported directly and indirectly by the housing bubble. In other words stopping the bubble would have revealed the weakness in our economy and the need for serious structural change. It was far easier and more lucrative for those at the top to just let the bubble go on expanding and pretend that it didn’t exist.
The following chart from the New York Times puts the movement in housing prices highlighted above into a longer term perspective, revealing just how strong speculative pressures were in the housing market.
As Dean Baker, one of the very few economists to warn about the dangers of the bubble, explains:
First, what happened is very straightforward: we had a huge run-up in house prices that had no basis in the fundamentals of the housing market. After 100 years in which nationwide house prices just kept even with the overall rate of inflation, house prices began to sharply outpace inflation, beginning in the late 1990s.
By 2002, when some of us first noticed the bubble, house prices had already risen by more than 30 per cent in excess of inflation. By the peak of the bubble in 2006, the increase in house prices was more than 70 per cent above the rate of inflation.
This was a huge problem – because this bubble was driving the economy. It drove the economy directly by creating a boom in residential housing construction. We were building housing at near record pace in the years 2002-2006. This was in spite of the fact that we had an ageing population and record levels of vacancies at the start of that period.
The other way in which the bubble was driving the economy was through its effect on consumption. The bubble created more than US $8tn in ephemeral wealth in housing. Homeowners thought this wealth was real and spent accordingly. The result was a massive consumption boom that sent the saving rate down to zero in the years from 2004-2006.
In reality, a lot of the consumer spending driving growth was financed by home refinancing, which helped many housholds compensate for stagnant wages and weak job creation at the cost of a sharp rise in debt. As a Wall Street Journal blog post pointed out, “From 2000 to 2007, household debt doubled from $7 trillion to $14 trillion, with debt related to housing responsible for 80% of the increase. By 2007, the household debt to GDP ratio reached its highest level since 1929.”
As we now know only too well, the collapse of the housing bubble reverberated through the economy, including the financial sector, triggering the Great Recession. Tragically, many of the “best and brightest” remain in leadership positions today, still arguing for the soundness of economic fundamentals.
Good old Ireland—according to the leaders of France and Germany, things would be a lot better in Europe if all the countries were like Ireland. Their reason: the Irish have generally accepted their austerity “medicine” quietly while workers in other countries (like Greece and Spain) have been in the streets protesting.
The problem with being the “good” country is that while austerity helps ensure that the Irish government is able to make payments to the country’s international investors (especially French and German banks), the Irish people are suffering and their economy is close to sinking back into a new recession. Some deal.
Not so long ago Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger. Ireland’s recent economic rise, which began in the 1990s, was fueled by multinational corporate investment, much of it from US high-tech firms. As Andy Storey explains:
Ireland, accounting for a mere 1% of Europe’s population, managed to attract 25% of all US greenfield investment into the EU in the early 1990s. US investment in Ireland, at $165 billion, is greater than US investment in Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. Multinationals, the majority of them from the US, account for 70% of Irish exports.
The attraction: Ireland’s extremely low tax rates and tariff-free access to the EU.
Unfortunately for Ireland, the 2001 collapse of the US high-tech bubble meant the end of US investment in the country. Ireland was “saved,” however, by a debt-driven housing boom. Sound familiar?
Irish banks were able to borrow cheaply thanks to the country’s 1999 adoption of the Euro. And with manufacturing in a slump, they aggressively and profitably pushed loans to Irish home buyers and builders. Storey highlights the importance of real estate activity to the Irish economy as follows:
Investment in buildings accounted for 5% of output in 1995 but for over 14% in 2008. By 2006/07, the construction industry was contributing 24% to Irish income (compared to the Western European average of 12%), accounting (directly and indirectly) for 19% of employment (including high levels of migrant labor) and for 18% of tax revenues (property transaction taxes have now collapsed as construction activity has nosedived).
Just like in the United States, this housing boom temporarily masked the fact that the country’s industrial base and public infrastructure was decaying, overall job growth was slowing, and household debt was soaring. When the global crisis hit in 2008, triggered by the collapse of the US housing market, it was the end for Irish growth as well. Irish banks lost access to foreign credit at the same time as their own real estate loans went bad. The Irish financial sector was on the ropes and unable to repay its creditors.
So, what did the Irish government do? In September 2008 it announced that it would guarantee all deposits and payments to foreign creditors. Thus, the people of Ireland found themselves taking on all the debts of the Irish financial sector. Not surprisingly, government debt as a share of GDP greatly increased.
The main beneficiaries of this policy were the country’s foreign lenders, including French and German banks. No wonder the French and German governments view Ireland as a good nation and role model for Europe. This history challenges the notion, widely pushed by the leaders of France and Germany, that the region’s crisis was caused by out-of-control government spending.
Of course, with low tax rates and an economy in recession the Irish government was in no position to pay the private debts it had taken over. The answer, supported by European elites, was austerity. The Irish government slashed spending on public sector projects and workers as well as social programs to free up funds. But even that was not enough. The Irish government had to borrow as well, an action that further increased the country’s national debt.
The foreign creditors got paid, all right. But the austerity only made things worse for Ireland. The cuts drove the economy deeper into recession, again driving down revenue, and forcing the government to seek new loans. However, foreign lenders could see the handwriting on the wall and were unwilling to substantially increase their lending to Ireland. Instead of renouncing or renegotiating the debts, the Irish government went to the IMF and EU for help. It was ”rewarded” with a major loan of approximately $90 billion in December 2010, at the cost of yet more austerity involving higher sales taxes and sharply reduced spending on social programs.
And the consequences of this strategy for the Irish people? As the New York Times reports:
“This is still an insolvent economy,” said Constantin Gurdgiev, an economist and lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin. “Just because we’re playing a good-boy role and not making noises like the Greeks doesn’t mean Ireland is healthy.”
Ireland’s GDP fell by 3.5 percent in 2008, another 7 percent in 2009, and a further 0.4 percent in 2010. The economy grew 1.2 percent the first half of this year but even this weak expansion will likely be short-lived. According to the New York Times:
The Economic and Social Research Institute, based in Dublin, recently cut its 2012 growth forecasts for Ireland in half, to under 1 percent. It cited an expected recession in the wider euro zone, in part because the austerity being pressed on much of Europe by Germany and the European Central Bank is seen as worsening the prospects for recovery rather than improving them.
In fact, the Irish government announced in November that it will be forced to raise taxes and cut spending again in 2012. The reason: despite all its efforts the size of the national debt continues to growth. The budget deficit is projected to hit 10 percent of GDP this year, still sizeable even though down from 32 percent of GDP in 2010. The government fears that without drastic action it will be unable to continue paying its debts.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Irish people are beginning to say “enough is enough.” The New York Times highlights one indicator of the change:
On a recent frosty night in Dublin, David Johnson, 38, an I.T. consultant, stepped outside a makeshift camp set up by the Occupy Dame Street movement in front of the Irish Central Bank. “This is all new to Ireland,” he said, pointing to tarpaulins and protest signs that urged the government to boot out the International Monetary Fund and require bondholders to share Irish banks’ losses that have largely been assumed by taxpayers. “The feeling is that the people who can least afford it are the ones shouldering the burden of this crisis.”
The December 3rd Spectacle of Defiance and Hope in Dublin, captured in the video below from Trade Union TV, is another.
The following charts published in the New York Times highlight some of the trends discussed above.
Ireland’s road to debt and austerity is illustrative of the general situation in Europe. Working people are being squeezed to protect profits and ensure the stability of existing economic relations. Significantly, the leaders of France and Germany have just announced their long term plan for ending Europe’s crisis: adoption of tough new limits on government borrowing. Clearly this is a desperate attempt to head off any meaningful challenge to the existing system. At some point, and one hopes sooner rather than later, working people throughout Europe will see through this game, recognize their common interests, and take up the difficult but necessary job of economic restructuring.