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Why Americans Want Socialism

Why Americans Want Socialism

As I write this, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” is leading the race for one of our major parties’ presidential nomination. The fact that so many Americans (especially young Americans) support Bernie Sanders ought to tell us something. A Quinnipiac poll out this week showed Senator Sanders with 54% support among Democrats age 18–34. Meanwhile, 50% of adults under 38 told the Harris Poll last year that they would “prefer living in a socialist country.”

I don’t believe they really want socialism. Few even understand what it is. What they want is change. They see little hope for improvement in their situations, no matter how hard they work and sacrifice. They don’t see anyone in authority trying to help them. So, when someone offers what sound like easy answers, they jump aboard. As Harvard professor Ed Glaeser says (my paraphrase), people think of socialism as “hyperredistribution.” They are not looking to control the means of production per se, just redistributing the fruits of that production.

In one regard, Sanders is similar to Trump in 2016—an outsider whose message activates previously neglected voters. Trump went on to win. If Sanders gets the nomination, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where he wins, too.

That the US could plausibly swing from someone like Trump to someone like Sanders in the space of four years says, to me at least, that something bigger is happening. Until we fix it, desperate people will keep making desperate choices.

This week’s letter will be a little bit different in that I want to focus on why so many of our fellow citizens find socialist ideas attractive. And why, even in the face of that, I am a long-term optimist. For those paying attention, there has never been a time so potentially dangerous but still offering so many incredible opportunities. But first…

The Decade of Living Dangerously

Because of the frustrations of so many, both left and right, I think volatile swings between radically different political choices could become de rigeur for at least the next three election cycles, if not longer. The simple fact is that no political solution can deliver economic nirvana. But until something happens (like The Great Reset) to force unwelcome change, the cycle will continue. And that is a reality we as investors have to face.

That theme of “The Decade of Living Dangerously” is my focus for the 16th annual Strategic Investment Conference, May 11–14 in Scottsdale. It is a thinking investor’s conference. We will be looking at the entire investment landscape: technological, political, geo-political, private and public investments, from seemingly prosaic real estate to the latest new inventions, casting our eyes around the globe, looking for what the smartest investors in the world are doing to avoid danger and find opportunity.

Every year for the last 15 years, SIC attendees have walked away saying, “How could you ever top this?” And last year was special, with record-breaking attendance and over-the-top presentations. The closing day was amazing.

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The SIC is my art form. I craft the experience to fit the needs of the time. Each SIC is different because we are looking at different overarching questions. I can honestly say it will be simply the best conference of the year for addressing the problems we face, along with the potential. The lineup of speakers, many of whom are provocative thought leaders, is designed to make us evaluate how our current portfolios will meet the challenges of the next few years and indeed the decade.

Among the already-confirmed faculty are investment legends Sam Zell, Leon Cooperman, and Felix Zulauf. Joining them are some of the smartest people I know… in market analytics, in investment strategy, geopolitics, fixed income, hard assets, evolving technologies, and more, including Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory… political pollster Michael Barone… market analyst Jim Bianco… venture capitalist David Blumberg… Bain’s head of Macro Trends Karen Harris… DC insider Bruce Mehlman… economist Samuel Rines… longtime friend Barry Ritholtz… China expert Jonathan Ward… Technology wizard Cathie Wood plus heavyweight real estate analysts Ivy Zelman and Barry Habib.

Then there are SIC favorites Louis Gave of Gavekal, economist David Rosenberg, bond expert Lacy Hunt, geopolitical expert George Friedman, and the always popular money manager Mark Yusko.

As you may have heard, this year we are reducing the number of attendees by 40%, at the request of long-time attendees. Over half of our attendees have been to five SICs or more. We believe it will make for a more collegial and intimate conference experience, one you will not want to miss.

So please do yourself a favor and join us for one of the most exciting SICs ever. Don’t procrastinate. I am very sure we will sell out and you know you want to be there. So click the link and prepare to experience the most fulfilling three days of your investment life.

And now to our regular program…

What’s the Appeal?

To my generation, “socialism” is the second “S” in USSR. We grew up being taught the Soviet Union was a mortal foe bent on world domination. We didn’t have to wonder if this adversary had nuclear weapons; we knew it could drop them on us any time. Remember “duck and cover” drills?

Thankfully, the threat of imminent nuclear war receded, and attitudes changed in those who didn’t grow up with it. A 1974 poll showed 75% of Americans aged 25 to 34 thought the US had “moved dangerously close to socialism.” Now 50% of young Americans want to embrace what they think of as socialism.

Its meaning isn’t entirely clear to older generations, either. This Mises Institute article does a good job outlining the ideologies we call “socialism.” Broadly speaking, they involve various degrees of collectivizing property and redistributing wealth. Those can sound pretty attractive if you have no property or wealth, and threatening if you do.

This raises a question: If the US economy is performing so well, and the rising tide is lifting all boats, why is socialism getting any traction at all? Public opinion data says this shouldn’t be happening. Polls from Gallup and others find solid majorities saying their financial condition improved in recent years, or at least got no worse.

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I see two answers to that. One is in the question itself. Your financial condition can be better than it was but still not where you think it should be. If you are no longer drowning and are instead treading water with no lifeboat in sight, then yes, your condition has “improved.” But you’re still looking for answers.

The broad “better or worse” responses are heavily weighted by political affiliation. Republicans say both their own condition and the economy are better. Democrats say both are worse. They can’t all be right.

Source: Quartz

Polls that ask more specific questions find a considerably less rosy scenario.

For instance, a December 2019 survey found half of US workers didn’t get any kind of pay raise in the last year. Gains in average hourly earnings may have been heavily weighted toward a smaller number of workers who got much larger raises.

Another survey by Salary Finance of 2,700 US adults working at companies with 500+ employees found 32% saying they ran out of money between paychecks. That’s consistent with the Federal Reserve’s annual “SHED” survey, which last year found almost 40% of US adults would need to borrow money to cover a $400 emergency expense. It also found an additional 18% of Americans considered themselves “just getting by” and 7% “finding it difficult to get by.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Fed reported this month that household debt balances hit $14 trillion, an all-time high. This was actually low as a percentage of disposable income, but disposable income is again highly weighted toward the top. Many at the bottom are in debt up to their eyeballs. And we’re not even in recession yet. Hence the dark humor like this.

Source: Twitter

From what I see, it may be true that most Americans are in “better” financial condition. But I think Ray Dalio is right when he divides the country into a bottom 60% and top 40%. More than half the country is in various degrees of trouble, and they are open to anything they think might help them, including what they think of as socialism.

Affordability Crisis

Last week I quoted from an article by Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic, The Great Affordability Crisis Breaking America. We who watch macroeconomics tend to focus on aggregate numbers—unemployment rate, GDP growth, and so on. We can overlook the “micro” world hiding inside those numbers. Let me quote Ms. Lowrey at length because she says this well.

In the 2010s, the national unemployment rate dropped from a high of 9.9 percent to its current rate of just 3.5 percent. The economy expanded each and every year. Wages picked up for high-income workers as soon as the Great Recession ended, and picked up for lower-income workers in the second half of the decade. Americans’ confidence in the economy hit its highest point since 2000, right before the dot-com bubble burst. The headline economic numbers looked good, if not great.

But beyond the headline economic numbers, a multifarious and strangely invisible economic crisis metastasized: Let’s call it the Great Affordability Crisis. This crisis involved not just what families earned but the other half of the ledger, too—how they spent their earnings. In one of the best decades the American economy has ever recorded, families were bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars, and child-care centers. For millions, a roaring economy felt precarious or downright terrible.

Viewing the economy through a cost-of-living paradigm helps explain why roughly two in five American adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency so many years after the Great Recession ended. It helps explain why one in five adults is unable to pay the current month’s bills in full. It demonstrates why a surprise furnace-repair bill, parking ticket, court fee, or medical expense remains ruinous for so many American families, despite all the wealth this country has generated. Fully one in three households is classified as “financially fragile.”

Along with the rise of inequality, the slowdown in productivity growth, and the shrinking of the middle class, the spiraling cost of living has become a central facet of American economic life. It is a crisis amenable to policy solutions at the state, local, and federal levels—with all of the 2020 candidates, President Donald Trump included, teasing or pushing sweeping solutions for the problem. But absent those solutions, it looks certain to get worse for the foreseeable future—leaving households fragile, exacerbating the country’s inequality, slowing down growth, smothering productivity, and putting families’ dreams of security out of reach.

For many and maybe most Americans, life is a constant struggle to make ends meet. They see prices rising for the things they need to survive even as the president says there’s no inflation. The central bank that supposedly works for them actually wants more inflation, not less.

This hasn’t always been the case. Not so long ago, you could work your way through college with a part-time job, afford a small home or apartment in a city or suburb where jobs were available, see a doctor if you got sick, and send your kids to decent public schools. Those are now out of reach for millions. And while some certainly made poor choices, it is not entirely or even primarily their fault.

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Many people perceive, with some justification, that the economy is rigged against them. Correct or not, that perception opened the door for Trump in 2016. We have seen significant improvement since then, but clearly not enough. The door is still open for anyone who can present a convincing argument their way is better. If “their way” is somewhere on the socialist spectrum, millions will be receptive to trying it.

There is a way to close that door, and it’s pretty simple: solve the problems that are making socialism seem attractive and capitalism seem evil. Unfortunately, I don’t see much interest from the people who would need to do it.

What I do see is a belief, not entirely wrong, that more economic growth will fix everything. The problem is it will take time and people are hurting now. And for reasons I have outlined in previous letters, our debt-burdened society has borrowed growth from the future. That Pied Piper of current growth is getting ready to be repaid.

Take healthcare. It is not the case that everything was fine before Obamacare. There were serious problems. For one, people under 65 with preexisting conditions were effectively uninsurable, unless they had employer coverage. Now health insurance is “available” to all but only at staggering cost.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others keep talking about a “wealth tax” to fund national health care, student loan forgiveness, and other benefits. Others talk about much higher income taxes. Or a return to higher corporate taxes. These are terrible ideas but I get why people want them.

It is gallows humor to note that the impulse to pay for the redistribution of income and wealth with higher taxes seemingly comes from the desire to balance the budget. We can pick death by higher taxes or bigger deficits. There are no other choices.

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Social Contract

Humans may be social creatures but today’s societies didn’t come easy. It took millennia of precarious survival-of-the-fittest to arrive at the “social contract” that defines human relations. The norms of how we treat each other, and how the state treats people, are incredibly important. And they are breaking down.

That’s not a pleasant thought but it is growing harder to deny. The McKinsey Global Institute has a new report, The social contract in the 21st century: Outcomes so far for workers, consumers, and savers in advanced economies. It is bleak reading. McKinsey’s findings in summary (my emphasis in bold):

… [W]hile opportunities for work have expanded and employment rates have risen to record levels in many countries, work polarization and income stagnation are real and widespread. The cost of many discretionary goods and services has fallen sharply, but basic necessities such as housing, healthcare, and education are absorbing an ever-larger proportion of incomes. Coupled with wage stagnation effects, this is eroding the welfare of the bottom three quintiles of the population by income level (roughly 500 million people in 22 countries). Public pensions are being scaled back—and roughly the same three quintiles of the population do not or cannot save enough to make up the difference.

These shifts point to an evolution in the “social contract”: the arrangements and expectations, often implicit, that govern the exchanges between individuals and institutions. Broadly, individuals have had to assume greater responsibility for their economic outcomes. While many have benefited from this evolution, for a significant number of individuals the changes are spurring uncertainty, pessimism, and a general loss of trust in institutions.

This isn’t imaginary and it is not solely about individual responsibility. Society really has changed in important, structural ways. Achieving stability, much less success, is far more difficult for younger generations than it was for me and my Boomer peers.

We can and should discuss how to ease those challenges without causing even greater harm in the process. But pretending they don’t exist, or telling people to pull themselves up by bootstraps they don’t have, isn’t the answer.

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Urging people who live paycheck to paycheck to save more is not realistic. They have no money left after those fast-growing expenses. Almost all saving occurs in the top 20% and certainly in the top 40%. The lowest quintiles have negative savings, i.e., are going into debt.

Source: WSJ

If you work for minimum wage, or even $20 an hour with a family to support, and someone comes along and promises you $1000 a month, or to cover your student debt or medical services or child care? That solves a problem you have right now. The fact that giving even 40 million people $1000 a month would be a $480 billion additional tax-and-spend which would significantly impact the economy is just not in your personal equation.

For many, it’s already an easy choice. After a recession? And deeper economic malaise?

Rigged System

The “financialization” of the American economy has led to increasing income and wealth disparity. As much as it pains me to say it, the “system” really is rigged. Whatever the good intentions of the Federal Reserve in particular and the US government in general have been, it has distorted the economic feedback loops that balance a true market-based economic system.

The fact is we already have “socialism” today. It’s not the socialism we feared in 1974. We have socialized the risks of capitalism, to the benefit of a small portion of the country, while a larger portion struggles.

That’s why Bernie Sanders may be on your ballot this November, and why he could win if the economy worsens. And there’s a chance it will. I long ago said Japan was a bug in search of a windshield. Maybe I should have said China. In either case, it’s beginning to look like virus COVID-19 could be the windshield against which the global economy meets its maker.

I am not being gloom-and-doom. I really believe the world is getting better and I see opportunity everywhere. However, if there is a recession, and thus more people in pain… if we haven’t given people better answers, they may choose socialism by default.

Coupled with socialism by central banking and bureaucracy?

It’s late and time to hit the send button. Let me close quickly by saying that these questions will be on the SIC agenda. Have a great week!

Your swear I am an optimist analyst,

John Mauldin Thoughts from the Frontline
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Ken Renfro
Feb. 22, 2020, 11:09 a.m.


A lot of great comments and many I readily agree with. However (you knew there was a however), the fact someone can’t cover a $400 furnace bill has a lot more to do with the choices they are making with their money and what they choose to spend it on. Many of those in the lower 60% could easily live on their income if they were willing to make tougher choices. The problem is they want it all and they want it now. That doesn’t mean that housing, healthcare, education, etc is not a burden and one that is increasing, but there is always burdens in life.

Take a look at the average spending - multi-line cell phones with unlimited data using $1100 iPhones for each person with average bills of $200-400/month. Spending $300/month on specialized pet food when ones house in in foreclosure. Cable bills of $150-200/month and complaining there is no food on the table. Taking the whole family to Disney for a week when you can barely afford the necessities. $1000/month truck payments when there is no reason to even own a truck and basic transportation will do. These are all real-world examples based on people I have counseled about budgets over the years and the list of other expenses goes on and on and on. It comes down to choices in most cases and don’t get me started on high credit card debt because they HAD to have the latest 4k TV or some other “necessity”.

I’m not simply talking about others, I have lived through some of this myself. There was a period where my wife and I both lost jobs, she worked full time at Walmart and I took a part time job at Walmart to cover basic expenses. We cut back, cancelled non-essentials, and tightened our belts. We still paid our $1k mortgage but that was our only debt. No cars, no credit cards, nothing. We did that for over a year. We continued making better choices even when our work situations improved (I started a new career and my wife started working part time at several local community colleges). Our income was no where near what it was previously for several more years to come but we continued to make wise choices to live in our means and save to have money available for that $400 furnace or whatever. During this time we put a daughter through college debt free (with a lot of hard work on her part along with our support).

During this time we had no healthcare coverage and simply paid out of pocket (what a pain that was because of Obamacare and health providers now had hundreds of hoops to jump through for the uninsured because of Obamacare).

Also, as far as promising someone an extra $1000, we already do some of that (maybe not $1k/month) but its called the EIC (Earned Income Credit) which gives thousands of dollars to lower income workers back on their taxes.

No, John, a lot of the problems could be solved RIGHT NOW but people don’t like the remedy - sacrifice and hard work. Free stuff just sounds better and we think we are ENTITLED TO IT. Just ask the generation who went through the Great Depression of the 30’s how they survived - hard work and sacrifice. Now its just easier to ask for someone else’s money who worked hard for it.

I think this rant is long enough. Thank you for your incredibly terrific newsletters that I read faithfully every week. Your thoughts and insights are always refreshing and welcome.

judy tadlock 76107636
Feb. 22, 2020, 10:46 a.m.

you alway make me think. I found you 20 years ago. and now at 82 I’m still with you.  I would love to be the bug on the wall at your conference but I have alway been the small person who reads you because i love economics.  back in 2001 you made a small comment about I-bonds. i had no knowledge of them but studied about them and bought a small amount that was in my budget.  I now live in a retirement village and the I-bonds helped me qualify to move here.  Keep up your good work. Judy Tadlock

Jim Johnson 34645
Feb. 22, 2020, 9:58 a.m.

I think a huge part of the problem is our citizens propensity to take on debt.  Folks seem to purchase large ticket items based on monthly payments not price or cost.  TV adds for autos suggest X $per month and not the purchase price; or they talk of 3 year leases.  The problem with debt is the transitory nature of employment. 
With houses.  Somehow we tend to remember the last house we lived in with our folks; the one they spent 20 or so years to afford what they had dreamed of.  Newly weds just don’t need a 2500 ft house with hardwood floors and granite counter tops.  They may want it, but they don’t need it.  Alas, today’s dreams are on the TV not in the neighborhoods.
Youth are bombarded with “buy, buy, buy…” with no why except ego or keeping up with the Jones’s. 
The other issue with socialism is that it is the lifestyle of our youth through high school.  They are not taught the truth about our Pledge (it was invented by socialists to help sell flags to schools).  They are not taught any relevant history—especially economics.
Anyway, nuff said.  And yeah I am a war baby, a veteran, and a retiree with zero debt. Also I do short articles for our paper titled “Something to think about.”

Bye the way, have y’all checked out HASI; it is on a tear.

Jim Johnson
Greenfield, Mo

David Ayres 35481766
Feb. 22, 2020, 9:41 a.m.

You have missed the true meaning of the Trump win. Every president from Reagan to Obama bought the , for want of a better term “ Progressive”” thought process of the world’s elites; namely, bringing Chine into the WTO would lead to nirvana. That’s because none of these elites lived they would suffer the effects of globalization. Ordinary people, including farmers, tradesmen, skilled mechanics and school teachers would have wage stagnation and cost of living increases to contend with. President Trump was the ONLY one to see the fallacy of these empty promises, and his solution was to Make America Great Again. The only effective tool to get China’s attention was Tariffs, so that’s what he used. Even more insidious was the rise internally of the Deep State, who were instrumental in forming and executing policies that furthered the Progressive agenda regardless of the damage to the country at large.  The past three years have undeniably improved the lives of those previously impacted, and they see the results. The elites also see the results and their resistance has been ferocious. Fortunately they have been less effective than President Trump, as indicated by their rabid attempts to bring him down. The combination of the failed Mueller Report and the failed removal of the President through a contrived Impeachment process have left the Progressives and their a Deep State in shambles. The Durham Report May well end this nightmare and then maybe the country can unite under President Trump to undo the damage wrought by these one-worlders. Lincoln’s admonition about a House Divided was never more true. We must unite to regain the benefits that our Declaration Of Independence promises and that our Constitution provides for…, if we work together to regain them.
Feb. 22, 2020, 9:19 a.m.

I think companies and analysts really miss the mark when they talk about wages and not TOTAL employee expenses.  I talked with a local owner of several hardware stores and he told me that his employee costs have doubled as a percent of sales in the last 20 years. 
This is not entirely due to healthcare, 401k, vacation increases and other benefits.

Ken Veit
Feb. 22, 2020, 7:56 a.m.

Your last few articles have been among the best ever. You have your finger on the problem, but what is the solution?
Feb. 22, 2020, 6:18 a.m.

Be Careful What You Wish For

There have been a number of articles like thisabout how the middle-class is sinking under the weight of the combined costs of healthcare, education and housing.  These are usually accompanied by a demand for Federal Assisstance to alleviate these costs.

Perhaps we should look at the history of such attempts before we make such requests.  The four fastest growing price series are right where the middle-class sees them to be. BUT these are all areas in which the Federal Government has, for years, sought to ameliorate the situation.

Think about it, for the Federal Government to step in it has to set up an agency with law, rules and a lot of public input.  Step one costs a considerable amount of time and money.  Then the recipient state agencies, hospitals, colleges and provders of housing have to, in turn, set up agencies with laws and rules and staffing to request the Federal aid. 

Hospitals now have extensive paid staff members who do nothing by sort through thousands of federally specified catgories to find just the right (possibly the one that pays best) niche into whch to slot a particular part of a medcal bill.  Housing authorities have to work through reams of building code, safety and environmental rules, as well as local zoning issues before a shovel hits the groudn.  Colleges seek Federal funds to build ever-fancier dorm facilities and super-modern research labs.

All of this seems to add a lot of cost, but not necessarily big improvements in the actual service delivered.  Meanwhile Federal dollars go to help the customer pay the increasing bills.

The problem would appear to be that the source of the funding is too far removed from the actual implementation of the desired goal.  It would seem that a far better system would either involve raising the money locally, or some form of block grants that would go directly to a local entity who would then be responsible for reporting back its progress towards the specified goal, with an,at least partially pre-determined,  penalty for failing to reach that goal.

Daniel Kennedy
Feb. 22, 2020, 5:36 a.m.

People who want socialism have no idea how the incentives work under socialism vs capitalism.

Capitalism mainly benefits the customer and should be called Customerism.  No one is forced to buy from or work for anyone – all transactions are voluntary. The customer freely chooses to enter any transaction and does so for his/her benefit. If the capitalist doesn’t serve the customer he/she will fail. It is truly “Power to the People”. It incentivizes work, innovation and progress. It decentralizes wealth and therefore power.  It has raised more people out of poverty than any other system in human history. It has done more to improve the quality of life for everyone on the planet than any other system in human history. Ask yourself - would you rather live in China under Mao or in China today now that it has accepted private property and markets? This doesn’t mean there is no role for government - prevention of monopoly and abuse of workers apply.

Turning over control of all the money to the same people who control all the guns is not a really good idea. Fascism/Socialism/Marxism is “Power to the State”.  It incentivizes centralization of control. It has given the world Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Chavez, Maduro, the Kim family etc. etc. etc. Marxists have murdered well over 100 million of their own citizens – a number only exceeded in murders by Muslims.

While the private sector is rewarded for efficiently satisfying customers, the public sector is rewarded by loyalty to superiors and amassing and centralizing power. Public sector bureaucrats are in fact punished for efficiency and problem solving - they lose funding and therefore status and power. Every page, every sentence, every word of legislation and regulation is fertilizer that enables public sector bureaucrats to grow the bureaucracy and the power of the state. Consider for example:
• Today the US federal government debt is over $23 trillion yet come the end of the fiscal year every federal government bureaucracy will do everything it can to spend every last dollar of its budget.
• What has the Environmental Protection Agency accomplished other than insuring “dirty” jobs and processes move to such ecological wonderlands as China, India, Bangladesh, etc.?
• Why is American education poorer but vastly more expensive today than before the creation of the Department of Education?
• What has the Department of Energy accomplished re energy independence - the ethanol lunacy which is depleting the Ogallala Aquifer?
• Look at Income Tax law. Why is the cost of compliance (time wasted, litigation, record keeping, mal-investment, fraud, 100K+ IRS workforce, preparer fees, etc.) with our 75,000+ page Income Tax Code approaching half a trillion dollars a year?

From Chinese economist Zhang Weiying:
“We human beings always seek happiness. Now there are two ways. You make yourself happy by making other people unhappy - I call that the logic of robbery. The other way, you make yourself happy by making other people happy - that’s the logic of the market.” Which way do you prefer?
Feb. 22, 2020, 5:09 a.m.

In the UK - where the socialist tide is also strong among young people - we generally believe that most of the problem is caused by immigrants who work for very low wages.

I am amazed that you have not mentioned this as it is a major issue that will get worse and worse in Europe and the US

Will Witt
Feb. 22, 2020, 5:07 a.m.

For the past 60 years, a meaningful portion of income redistribution has been through the use of market forces transferring income from blue collar workers to owners.  The mechanism has been illegal immigration, entirely blue collar.  By maintaining a surplus of blue collar workers, wages have remained low, while profits have soared. 

The cynicism of the system is in pretending that allowing/supporting illegal immigration is about “caring for the less fortunate” when it is clear to those who believe in markets that the real affect is to further burden the less fortunate, while further enriching those already well off.

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