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The Plight of the Working Class

The Plight of the Working Class

The Plight of the Working Class

Bill, you ask a very complicated question. There is not a simple black and white answer, but I am going to try and address your concerns. Let’s start with today’s employment numbers. We got a decent non-farm payroll number of 216,000, and 240,000 new jobs in the private sector (governments everywhere are still shedding jobs). That means over the last two months the private sector has added almost 500,000 jobs. If you take the household survey, that number looks even better. So why did all the consumer sentiment numbers in March come out so awful?

Looking deeper into the data we find that wages were once again flat, for the 4th time in the last five months. We are certainly not keeping up with inflation. The chart below shows real median household income since 1967. It is published in May of each year by the Census Bureau, so we don’t have the data for 2010, but it will not be good. Real median income, when the new data comes out, if I read the chart right, will not have grown for almost 14 years.

But all this has led to what David Rosenberg calls the “Wageless Recovery.” Wage growth just continues to fall.

And given the rise in food and fuel costs (which are now about 23% of the average person’s income), the recent lack of wage growth is even more frustrating.

Although the economy in the US is now producing more “stuff” than it did at its peak in 2007 (fact), we are doing it with 6.8 million fewer people. That means the productivity of the workforce is much better, which is good for corporate profits, but this has not yet translated into higher wages, although in past cycles higher profits have given way to higher wages (eventually, at least).

Can You Say Jobless Recovery?

The following chart is from the St. Louis Fed. It shows the spectacular fall in jobs in the last recession and the painfully slow recovery.

And note that we have gained 30,000,000 more people in the US over the last decade! And negative job growth!

And this next chart is courtesy of my friend Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture. It is also from the Fed, but it’s one I have never seen.

That is a graph of the last three recessions, with employment indexed at 100, and it shows what employment did from the beginning of the recession, and then from the end of the recession. As Barry said, we don’t want to think about what the next recession will look like, if this is a trend.

The most recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Business shows that small businesses are indeed once again hiring. “The positive job creation observed in February was repeated again in March [sigh of relief here], confirming that the number of net new jobs reported on Main Street was decidedly positive. The March net increase in jobs per firm was .17 workers, a repeat of the February performance. Employment gains have not been this good since 2007.”

But that still begs the question of why wage growth has been so poor. And why do we now have such structural unemployment? Although the headline unemployment number went down to 8.8%, the only way you can get to that number is by not counting the millions who have dropped out of the employment pool, too discouraged to look, but who will take a job if they can get one. If you go back and take the number of people in the labor force just two years ago, the unemployment picture is back over 10% (back-of-my-napkin math).

GDP has recovered, but jobs haven’t. This chart from the NFIB shows the disparity.

Bill, I get it. The average guy is getting squeezed. You can see it in the numbers. For a while, it was masked by growing credit.

Drowning in Debt but Getting No Growth

This is an older chart, but it is relevant. We grew debt in this county in all forms by over 100% of GDP in the last decade. $14 trillion. And what did we get for it? No real job increases, no increase in wages. It was an illusion. In fact, my friend Rob Arnott pointed out to me today that a piece he is working on (which I hope to be able to give you soon!) shows that the only way you can show a positive GDP for the last decade is with government spending.

And that, Bill, is part of the problem. We have become a credit-addicted, credit-fueled economy, which works just fine until you have too much credit driving too little real growth. Without government spending, “real” GDP would be at levels it was over ten years ago. And it is real growth that drives wages and creates jobs.

You write: “The line is that we have to make drastic reductions to spending on domestic programs, on our schools, on our infrastructure, on unemployment entitlements, on all the things that serve to give working people a chance at a dignified life.”

That is not my line. My book calls for a large increase in funded infrastructure spending through a fuels tax (none of it going to the federal coffers!). I am not against unemployment insurance, but at some point it needs to become job training and a path to employment. I am a huge proponent of education, having spent a great deal of money on it over the years, with seven kids (and paid even more in taxes!). But does the current system really work? We have double the educational workers per student we had only a few decades ago, but no improvement in outcomes.

Yes, we have to make cuts to government programs. A 33% growth in federal discretionary spending (not including stimulus money) the last three years alone is not reasonable, given the size of the deficit. The last recession was not caused by too little government.

The Cancer of Debt

The problem is that the debt is like a cancer. The bigger it grows the more threatening it is. Pretty soon it consumes its host (think interest expense).

Bill, I am worried about the survival of the country economically. Another crisis caused by the bond market driving up interest rates, because they become concerned about the size of the debt and deficits, will seriously reduce the choices we have – with none of them being good. Ask Ireland or Greece how it feels. They are in what can only be called a depression, and likely to stay there for some time. You think we have it bad now? Avoid dealing with the debt and see what happens.

To think it cannot happen here is to simply ignore reality. Yes, the US can go longer than we might think, but there is a limit. I think that limit will come before the middle of this decade. Perhaps as early as 2013, if the new incoming President and Congress do not deal with the deficit in a realistic manner. Then Bang! , we have our own Greek moment. I want to avoid that.

In my book and on numerous radio and TV shows, I have made the case that we must get the fiscal deficit below the growth rate of nominal GDP. That means we need to cut, over time, about $1 trillion from the current budget deficit.

And that means entitlement spending has to be on the table, as well as tax increases. The polls clearly show that people want to keep Medicare and also are against tax increases (close to 70% in both cases). Those are not compatible objectives.

We have to have a national conversation about how much Medicare we want and how we want to pay for it. Writing the words tax and increase in the same sentence is difficult for me. Tax increases taken from private producers do nothing for economic growth, which is where we get new jobs. But I would rather have higher taxes than for deficits to be at a level where they threaten the economic survival of the republic. (And I make the case that if conservatives give in on tax increases, that means there needs to be a complete structural change to the tax system, gearing it more to encouraging growth, real Medicare reform, and even larger spending cuts, etc., that are linked to real, measurable metrics!)

I am just as frustrated as you about the bailout of banks, that we still have banks too big to fail, that credit default swaps are not on an exchange, that Fannie and Freddie still even exist in their current forms, and a host of other problems you mention. (Frank-Dodd was a disaster! It almost guarantees another crisis.)

I have become all too familiar with cancer of late. It tends to focus the minds of those who are suffering, and their families, on survival. Chemotherapy is nasty. It means putting a toxic drug into your body. That is something you don’t want to do under normal circumstances, but when your survival is the issue, you do it.

It is no less than economic survival we are talking about. Oh, the US has been through worse. Civil war, depressions, panics. We will survive as a nation, but the pain we will endure is simply more than most people can comprehend, Bill. Whole generations of savings and investment will be wiped out. Think the cuts I am talking about are serious? Wait until interest payments are eating up 25-30% of revenues in a 12%+ unemployment world. Think the underfunded pension problems are bad now? Let’s have a REAL bear market, with inflation.

I have some friends who think that is what it will take to get government smaller. They relish the thought, as they also think their gold portfolios will go through the roof. I am not in that camp. That is not a world I want for my kids and grandkids, Bill, most of whom are (for now) your average person. (Well, except for my exceptional grandkids.)

I want us to find that middle path, to cure the cancer of debt. Yes, I want smaller government and lower taxes, but survival is now my fixation. The cure for too much debt is not more debt. We can get it under control, but it is going to mean compromises, a word that I hate – but I also hate chemotherapy.

I get that we need to do things to make government more efficient. And we need to provide safety nets. We need a lot of things.

But most of all we need an adult conversation about what it is that we need, and what we can afford. The American people have to understand that the path back to a sustainable economy will not be easy. As I have written many times, cutting government spending will mean lower GDP numbers in the short term, but survival in the longer term. This is not a typical business cycle. We cannot simply grow out of our problem. We haven’t really grown, except for government spending, for ten years. Yes, there are numerous steps we can take that will make it better and easier and quicker than if we wait until we are forced by a crisis to act. But there are no “Easy” buttons.

Gentle readers, I promise you we get through this, one way or another. The 2020s are going to be a heck of a lot of fun!

New York, Portland, and La Jolla

I worry that I may have to go into hiding after this letter, as the middle is a lonely place. Oh well, I leave Sunday for New York. I had to cancel Utah at the last minute to go on a secret mission, but will be doing the media rounds in NYC next week to promote the book. Fast Money on Monday, Bloomberg on Tuesday morning, a guest host spot with the lovely Liz Claman on Fox Business on Wednesday, and videos with Yahoo Tech Ticker,, the Wall Street Journal, and with Steve Forbes himself. Lots of meetings with cool people, so should be a fast and fun week.

Korea has been postponed, which gives me more time at home in May, which I need. I am already starting to work on my presentation for my Strategic Investment Conference, April 28-30. There are only a few spots left. Best speaker line-up of any conference anywhere. You can learn more at

Endgame has now been on the New York Times best-seller list for three weeks. And this week, if you have not yet bought your copy, let me commend you to my friends at Laissez Faire Books. I have been buying books from them for nearly 30 years. They are the best source for Austrian economics and libertarian books, along with the usual offering of investment books current in the market. They have matched the Amazon price for Endgame; but if you are interested, move around their website and pick up a few other things along with my book.

It is time to hit the send button. Daughter Amanda and her husband are in town. I didn’t know it when I gave him permission to marry my daughter, but he is a Red Sox fan, and as they open the year with the Texas Rangers at the Ballpark, he finally decided to bring my daughter back to Dallas for a long overdue visit. At least we won the opener today. I see margaritas and talk of baseball and family for the next few hours, with no mention of the worries of the Endgame and deficits. Have a great week!

Your hoping I don’t lose too many friends with this letter analyst,

John Mauldin
John Mauldin

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Tom McSherry
July 28, 2012, 2:47 a.m.

In the above discussion, the options laid out are: continue entitlements and increase unsustainable debt, or cut entitlements. But there is a third option- an option that should be considered and implemented before cutting Medicare and SS payments (both of which, as retirement nears, I find abhorrent unless the government wants to refund- with interest-all the money they have stolen from me under the guise of “insuring” some retirement protection.

That third option? Get serious about eliminating fraud and waste in these (and other) government programs. Who knows what an honest audit and cleaning house with a hatchet could accomplish? But, I would be willing to bet my life it would go a hell of a long way toward eliminating the need to cut these programs.

And, while we’re at it, let’s get serious about punishing malfeasance at high corporate levels- read that as follows: you, Mr. CEO, are personally responsible and subject to forfeiture of your accumulated wealth in reparation. I think the newspapers would have considerably less fodder for headlines after the first dozen were put away.

Mike Lehner
April 8, 2011, 8:49 p.m.

Thanks for finally breaking from your Texas Republican rut and admitting that higher taxes must be part of the compromise solution.  I agree that spending has increased too quickly, but a quick comparison of government revenues and expenditures 30 years ago and today shows that tax cuts are just as much to blame as for our deficits as spending increases.

On a separate, but related, note - In a future letter, I would like to see you flesh out your assertion that letting tax cuts expire for those making >$250k would be detrimental to the economy and job growth.  You also state in several of your letters that show the majority (all) of job growth is driven by start up companies.  These two statements appear to be incongruous.  Here are my assumptions for their incongruity that you may be able to refute:  1) True startups do not pay their entrepreneurs that kind of salary.  Once a company can pay its owner >$250k (of TAXABLE income, mind you), that company has moved well beyond the struggling startup stage and has most likely plateaued its hiring (unless it is one of the lucky few to make it to Fortune 500 status); 2) Most startups do not use the kind of capital infusion that would require reaching out to investors to make >$250k themselves.  Most startups appear to be low-capital-intensive business (service companies, software companies, product companies that will outsource production to minimize capital expenditures).  An exception would be some of the biotech companies you invest in.  Even still, wealthy investors (i.e., >$250k in TAXABLE income) should still not shy away from these investments even if taxes return to their historical levels because their investment returns are still taxed at relatively low rates and they like to invest in America for patriotic, familiarity, and legal reasons.

Jeffrey Alldis
April 6, 2011, 4:26 p.m.

Hi John, very good letter.

However, you said: “We cannot simply grow out of our problem. We havenâ??t really grown, except for government spending, for ten years.”

I have an outside of the box thought for you about that.

Why isn’t it possible for the US to simply grow out of its problems? Ten years without real growth.. that’s a long trend.. although trends go longer than many expect, they don’t go on forever.

Couldn’t the invention of new technologies boost new and massive real growth and employment? I quite think so. Moreover, by increasing taxes you inject another cancer, jeopardizing the just mentioned possible technology boom.

How about massively decreasing corporate taxes, getting rid of bureaucracy on all possible levels and making it possible for every fellow-countrymen and even foreigner to open and close a company within no time. Furthermore, sell as much government owned and controlled stuff back to the public. Launch a Q3 as a bridge for the corporate tax decreases. Yes, somehow introduce chaos to solve the problem. Bring back the Wild West. Free men and women will solve today’s problems and not the government, which is actually the creator of the mess by avoiding constructive destruction in the economy for two decades.

Thus, give business incentives as much as possible and hold your ground until the real growth kicks in. Then you can start relaxing and more quietly deal with the debt problem and destroy some zombie companies. By the way, by business incentives I mean everything else than government spending, that didn’t work so far, didn’t it..? Politicians good investors.. hmmmm… not in this world.

In conclusion, support massive corporate incentives by adding more debt. When growth kicks in, THEN start dealing with the mess. Create good chaos to deal with the bad chaos. Because to think some politicians will solve the problem is “blasphemy” to free markets.


Jeffrey Alldis

Mathew Andresen
April 5, 2011, 8:27 p.m.

@ Rainer Richter

Sorry, but I can’t concieve of any system were it’s fair to take more than 50% of what a person makes in taxes (and that’s all taxes including federal and state).  And to be honest, I think it should max out closer to 33%

My wife and I barely make more than 100k and we already pay over 55% in taxes, how much is enough?

25% federal
15% payroll
5% state
10% sales tax
plus property taxes etc

Worse, all that money doesn’t accomplish anything.  Our roads are trashed, our bridges falling down, our schools suck, and red tape interferes with anyone trying to accomplish anything.

But I bet if you let people actually keep most of their money and spend it how they saw fit THEN you would see an economy get going.

John Godfrey
April 5, 2011, 10:12 a.m.

The angle I think John missed (and he doesn’t usually miss many) is well summarised by a recent article in Rolling Stone “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?”

The market economy can work very efficiently and sometimes reasonably equitably BUT it requires the rules to be enforced fairly. Clearly something is very very broken at the top of the USA (and other) financial systems. If it’s not seen to be addressed then we’ll eventually end up with a ‘black swan event’ like say the American War of Independence, or as a more recent example - Egypt. Might take generations though.

So, yes your USA debt is way too high, you’ll need to cut military spending and genuine waste in general. You’ll need a lot more ‘soft’ power. Which means relying on trust and integrity - and at the nation state level you’re competing against a low base! Setting your own house in order first - or at least sending a clear signal that there are lines that should not be crossed has got to be an important base step. Or else why should we, the other 99% listen?

From a country where black swans are native.

Rattan Kumar
April 5, 2011, 9:35 a.m.

First an aside: If you’re going to amend Stealers Wheel, it should be “Subprime to the left of me, derivatives to the right of me”.

Your main theme: I feel you have avoided Mr.Bill K’s main thrust. Yes, the Government gave and gave and gave - more money to the thieves & scoundrels (is that Goldman Sachs doubling their CEO’s bonus just now? to 19 million is it? USD or barrels of oil?) You’re right there has to be pain but doesn’t at least some of it have to be suffered by those who took you to this point? Is none of it to be recovered?

How are you different from Ireland? The average joe there has to pay for the Government bailing out the European banks and now the new PM wants to repudiate the debt - or some such similar comments since the Government is now nationalising another bank or two.

How different are you from Marie Antoinette?

I live in India and we are desperate to get control of our Government. Your example seems to be saying we have no chance - ever!

Timothy Kerssen
April 5, 2011, 5:14 a.m.

As always, John, a very informative article.  But I have a beef with your (non)prescription for curing the ills of the current economic situation.  Speaking in broad generalities as you did here, is an easy way to escape having to take a serious stand.  You began with some great statements, but didn’t follow up. 

You start strong: “My book calls for a large increase in funded infrastructure spending through a fuels tax (none of it going to the federal coffers!). I am not against unemployment insurance, but at some point it needs to become job training and a path to employment. I am a huge proponent of education, ... But does the current system really work? We have double the educational workers per student we had only a few decades ago, but no improvement in outcomes.”  Then you follow up with this: “A 33% growth in federal discretionary spending (not including stimulus money) the last three years alone is not reasonable, given the size of the deficit. The last recession was not caused by too little government.”

Funded infrastructure, education, and unemployment insurance are all part of discretionary spending. These are absolutely imperative for the economic survival of this country.  How so?  These are all investments in our future.  Just as any business will wither and die without constant investment, so too does a country. 

Education is perhaps the most important investment we can make.  I submit that it is at least as important as military spending.  No matter how strong the military is, if we have ignorant voters and don’t have people able to start businesses and fill jobs, there is no future.  Yet, we treat education as discretionary.  You wisely mention that unemployment insurance should lead into job training.  I have a personal connection with positive results that can occur when this is done.  You might call that ‘Bullseye Investing’ in that it takes people off from the expense column and puts them into the income column.

So what about that 33% increase in discretionary spending?  That is a small part of the total budget.  Cut it all and we still have a problem.  So let’s stop ticking off all of the discretionary line items we don’t like and get to the real issues.  The big problems are entitlements and the military.  You do mention Medicare and I like to think that you use that as a proxy for all entitlement programs, including social security.  These MUST be dealt with, perhaps harshly.  Then there is military spending, which has grown to an absurd level.  Do we need military bases in most of the countries of the world?  Why?  Others have mentioned the military-industrial complex, and rightly so.  It’s ironic that the chest-thumpers who claim to be brave and tough are the ones who are most afraid; so much so that they must spend as much as the rest of the world combined, and still think it not enough. 

I do have to take issue with the statement you made saying that the recession was “not caused by too little government.” I couldn’t disagree more.  In fact, the last recession was caused in large part by government not doing their oversight job.  The SEC and other regulators were rendered toothless or irrelevant by politicians and Fed officials who dogmatically recited the mantra that less regulation is always better.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Human history shows that lack of rules with fair and competent oversight leads to a more and more uneven playing field.  You allude to this when you mention bank bailouts and unregulated credit default swaps. 

Your letters and commentaries are usually solid.  This time though, I’m afraid that you wimped out and failed to say what needs to be said.

Still a faithful reader,

Tim Kerssen

Tim Malik
April 4, 2011, 8:28 p.m.


Interesting rhetorical attempt to show practical wisdom and agree with the how he framed the problem, but a copout on the answer.  If wealth has been distributed unfairly, as it has through the tax system the last 20+ years, the answer is not more of the same with the middle class paying the bills of the over-franchised wealthy.  The bills should be redistibuted to those that profited the most.  Taxes should increase for the wealthy (and multinational corporations), not for the middleclass.  You assertions here, and many times in the past, that increasing taxes on the top 3% will stall the economy seem disingenuous.  How do you know unless we do it?  The middleclass drives 70% of the economy, and the economy and jobs are lagging because they no longer have extra income to do so.  Letting those that ran up the bills pay for them is the answer.  There is plenty of cash to support education, medical insurance, job bills, etc., and pay the piper, if congress has the guts to go get it.

Please remember, you are not running for political office, fella, although I can see that you may be pandering to those that can afford your newsletter.


Glenn Taylor
April 4, 2011, 8:20 p.m.

I agree with Bill. The system has been slowly hijacked over the past 40 years so that it primarily benefits the “have gots”. The stats are pretty clear on this growing divide between the wealthy and the middle class and we continue to get treated to a regular helping of dogma to justify this state of affairs.

John states that we need to have an adult conversation about this however that includes talking about taxes which the wealthy (which respectfully includes John) does not want to really talk about. Sure, we’ll have to grudgingly raise taxes but all taxes are bad which simply isn’t true.

There’s an enormous pile of money floating around the planet doing nothing more than speculating. It’s money earned on the backs of the middle class or poor and which has no productive value other than to speculate on oil, gold, ETFs, hedge funds and moves from asset class to another at the speed of light.

How does adding to this pool of wealth through ever greater tax cuts for the rich benefit those who helped create it? Certainly some of this wealth is available as bonafide investment cash but the majority is invested in speculative assets that have no long term productive value. How can it have productive value if it moves from asset class to asset class in the blink of an eye?

Investors only invest of there’s something profitable to invest in and as long as the middle class is shrinking in the western economies, then investors have few good investments to make here. Safer to speculate on oil or gold. Why risk building a factory when you can get 5% on your millions and drop ship from China.

On another point, I also don’t feel that John really addressed any of the concerns put forward in the letter either. Economic stats we’re rehashed and some empathy was offered. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but the bottom line is that John’s primary constituency is the wealthy (as small business owner I certainly get that). Coming out and advocating higher taxes for the rich wouldn’t be good for business.

There’s a proper balance between taxation that’s too high and too low. Take too much and you kill the incentive to work and create; take to little and you basically steal from the middle and destroy your infrastructure which is what the US is doing today and to a much lesser degree in Canada as well.

I’m a small business owner and I understand the need to retain a “fair” amount of what I earn but I also see the need to contribute to the collective good. It’s not just about me after all and it’s easy to see that many people have tremendous disadvantages - through no fault of their own - when it comes to getting a fair slice of the pie. Some do it to themselves but most people want to work and be treated fairly and that’s where we’re failing today.

Best Regards,

“Affluence creates poverty” - Marshall McLuhan

Richard Commins
April 4, 2011, 5:46 p.m.

Our economic problems all started with “Collective Bargaining”, a good thing.  The working man deeded a way to fight back against the oppressions of the industrial complex.  But, any good thing, taken too far, will become bad.  Collective Bargaining (Unions), starting winning their fights against bad workplace practices and gained real power over business.  As they gained power, greed crepe into their negotiations and they demanded greater and greater benefits for their union people, without regard to the economic realities of the business.  The businesses had to give in to their demands (with a fight of course).  This tactic was then turned onto the government, demanding increases in entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Unemployment Insurance.  These entitlement programs are now bloated and unsustainable in their current states. What the Unions don’t realize is that you can’t extract too much money or benefits from business.  If you do, they will shut down the business or move their business offshore.  The production of goods and services has real value.  Money is just a means of keeping score.  As jobs were off shored, we tried to compensate by making the financial sector 40% of our economy.  Moving money around does not produce real value.  We have offset the loss of jobs by increasing productivity, but in the end more and more people stopped making goods and services. The government is trying to maintain the status quo by borrowing 50% of the money needed to fund the bloated entitlement programs and the greed and corruption of the government.  We have “Hit the Economic Wall” and what can’t be maintained, won’t!
John Mauldin is an optimist and a very likeable guy.  His philosophy is “If everyone just gets along we will just muddle through”.  He is philosophically right in his views but he is not a realist.  John lives in an ivory tower of fine wine and jaunts to exotic lands to educate his friends.  What he doesn’t seem to see is that people are naturally self centered and are protecting themselves and their families.  The financial system is breaking down.  We have fraud, scams, ponzi schemes and outright thief with no enforcement of the financial laws to prevent these abuses.  You can steal from the “Little People”, the “Peasants”, the “Poor”, the “Elderly”, the “Middle Class” or the “Just Plain Stupid” for just so long, until they can’t feed themselves.  What the Fed and Congress do with QE(n) affects the rest of the world. We have now arrived at a time when the world’s the economic system breaks down and everyone starves.  We are right now standing at the “Edge of the Abyss” and looking into the “Valley of Death”.  History has shown that when mankind reaches this point, revolution or all out war occurs to balance the “Economic Equation” and restore order.  In the past, war was fought with honor and civilians were not included in the fighting and war was self limiting. This all changed after WWII.  We now have the power to destroy all our cities and the people that live in them before anyone who is sane can stop it.  We need to step back from the edge and start becoming realistic before it is too late.  John doesn’t want to talk about what he really anticipates happening because he is afraid of being labeled a “Doom and Gloomer” and this won’t be positive for his Millennium Wave Advisors business. Trust me, he is very educated when it comes to the financial system, he knows the score, but chooses to obscure what he knows.  Still, John Mauldin in a nice guy, but he should start telling people the whole truth about our financial future.  We are not going to “Muddle Through”!  We are going to balance the economic equation and the last man standing wins the economic war.  Be prepared for the worst mankind has to offer, there is no turning back.

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