There Will Be No Real Recovery Without The Middle Class

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What if they gave a recovery, and the middle class were never invited? Well, that’s an experiment we are running now, and, even with the recent strengthening of the jobs market, it’s not looking very good.

Over the last five years, Wall Street and the investor class have been on a bull run, but the economy has been, at best, torpid for the vast majority of the population. Despite blather about our “democratic capitalism,” stock ownership is increasingly concentrated with the wealthy as the middle class retrenches. The big returns that hedge funds, real estate trusts or venture capitalist receive are simply outside the reach of the vast majority.

A recent study by the Russell Sage Foundation suggests these patterns of inequality, which have been developing over the last several decades, have become more pronounced in the post-Recession years. In 2013 the wealth of those at the 90th and 95thpercentiles was actually higher than 10 years ago. Everyone else is lower.

The labor market may be strengthening, with the unemployment rate falling to 6.1% last month, but too many of the new jobs are low wage or part time. They aren’t providing the kick the economy got in the last, more broad-based expansion from robust consumer spending.

Wage growth has been weak, rising 2.5% annually since 2009, according to Bloomberg, compared with a 4.3% annual rise from 2001 to 2007. Consumer spending, which makes up roughly 70% of the economy, has expanded an average 2.2% since the recession ended, behind the 3% advance in the prior expansion.

And many working-age people are still sitting discouraged on the sidelines – the labor force participation rate remains the lowest since 1979.

People in marginal or part-time jobs are not likely to drive consumer spending. Instead we have seen the emergence of a new, top-heavy consumer market. Since 1992 the top 5% of households have increased their share of total spending to almost 40%, up from 27% in 1992.

Former Citigroup economist Anjay Kapur has described this situation as a “plutonomy,” in which the economy is increasingly based on the global wealthy and their tastes and predilections.

Meanwhile broader consumer confidence remains weak. Last year some two-thirds of Americans polled by the Washington Post and the Miller Center said they felt life had become tougher over the last five years compared to just 7% who thought theirs had improved. Pollsters also have found almost two-thirds of parents felt their children would do worse in life, a stunning shift from far more optimistic readings back in 1999.

The Housing Market

Historically housing has been the primary asset held by the middle and working class. Despite government efforts to keep mortgages affordable, post-crash, growth has been slow, and much of the buying restricted to investors, including major financial interests. Particularly damaging, there has been a marked decline in the “trade up market” and even more so, sales to first-time buyers, whose share of the market has declined to under 30%, well below the historic average of 40%. This reflects the weak economy, tighter lending standards, and, for younger customers, the heavy burden of student loans.

Some on Wall Street hope to profit from a perceived shift in America to a “rentership society.” Housing more of the population in rental apartments would do little to improve social mobility, as people end up working not for their own equity but to pay the mortgage of their landlords. Nor can the economic payoff from apartment construction come close to that of single-family homes. According to the National Association of Home Builders, building 100 new single-family homes adds 324 jobs to the average metropolitan economy in the year of their construction and 53 jobs annually in the following years. This compares to 122 jobs per 100 new apartments in the year of construction and 32 in the following years. With home starts at less than a third their 2005 level, lack of construction employment also deals a body blow to one of the primary sources of higher-paying blue collar jobs.

The Emasculation Of Small Business

In previous recoveries, small businesses have provided much of the spark and job creation. Not so this time. Small business start-ups have declined as a portion of all business growth from 50% in the early 1980s to 35% in 2010, while its share of employment dropped down from 20% to 12%. Indeed, a 2014 Brookings report revealed that small business “dynamism,” measured by the growth of new firms compared with the closing of older ones, has declined significantly over the past decade, with more firms closing than starting for the first time in a quarter century.

Nor is the future prognosis too good. The rise of the regulatory state, including the Affordable Care Act and higher taxes, amplified in deep blue states such as California, has hit smaller businesses hard. The gradual culling of smaller banks, traditional lenders to entrepreneurs, and the growing concentration of assets in the “too big to fail” banks, historically unfocused on the needs of small companies or individual proprietors, suggests credit may remain tough for grassroots entrepreneurs.

Needed: A New Paradigm

The recession and the weak recovery have taught us you cannot have strong economic growth without the participation of the vast majority of Americans. We’ve run an experiment under Bernanke, Bush and Obama to pump up the economy from above, and what we’ve done is squash the aspirations of those middle orders, particularly small business and the self-employed.

This issue should be at the center of the political debate.  I would welcome suggestions from the right and left about how best to restart a broad-based economic recovery. The best ideas may come from across the spectrum, such as flatter taxes, supported by many conservatives, as well as new spending on major infrastructure projects as improved roads, rivers and ports that generally come from more liberal groups.

The good news is the fundamentals for a broader-based prosperity, including the creation of high-paying blue-collar jobs, remain in place. Progress is already evident in the energy and some manufacturing-oriented regions. Restarting the housing sector — particularly the single-family home component — would do wonders for middle and working class people in many regional economies, as can be seen, for example, in Houston, where more homes will be built this year than in the entire state of California. Nationwide, the gap between  between demand and potential housing, according to the NAB, is roughly 1 million homes, which translates into close to 3 million jobs.

How to drive growth to these and other productive sectors may require not only changes in government policy but also reacquainting the investor class with the virtues of long-term growth, productivity and the revival of the mass economy. Perhaps once they do investors might earn something other than intense dislike from the rest of the population.

This story originally appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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How to Help the Middle Class

When I want straight-forward social and economic reporting, Kotkin cannot be beat, but this is the first time I know of that he has asked for my opinion.

Obama is a Marxist psychopath. He grew up within a radical Marxist family, his mentors were Marxists (Davis and Alinsky), and his associates were crooks (Rezko and the Chicago Democratic establishment). Obama has the characteristics of a clinical psychopath including a grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, parasitic lifestyle, and irresponsibility, to name a few.

Dr. Robert Hare originated the Psychopathy Check List - Revised (PCL-R) from which the above items were taken. Dr. Hare co-authored "Snakes in Suits" which described corporate psychopaths, but the lessons from "Snakes in Suits" is equally applicable to financial psychopaths (Bernie Madoff), military psychopaths (Captain Holly Graf and Captain Queeg of "The Caine Mutiny"), and religious psychopaths (Jim Jones and David Koresh). Dr. Clive Boddy presented a convincing argument that the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown was the product of financial psychopaths. The result of the 2008 financial meltdown was that financial and political powers had more wealth, and tens or hundreds of millions of workers in America and across the world had significantly less relative wealth. This entirely agrees with Kotkin's thesis in the current article. And that is what political and financial psychopaths do.

Eliminating Tax Breaks

Flattening taxes and eliminating tax breaks is one way to reduce some of the distortions in the economy. While high profile tax breaks like those that allow Hedge Fund owners to pay taxes at a lower rate than regular wage slaves draw all the attention (and deserve to be eliminated, you are not going to get significant savings unless you touch some of the "sacred cows". The tax break for second homes is ridiculous and should be eliminated. And employee benefits should be subject to progressive taxation

I'd love it if all of the savings could be put toward infrastructure improvement but that's another story.

"I would welcome suggestions

"I would welcome suggestions from the right and left about how best to restart a broad-based economic recovery."

An immigration moratorium and tariffs on low-wage imports from abroad. True, neither of these would cause a recovery, but over the long-run they would increase real hourly wages, the basic determinant of a worker's standard of living. So would a six-hour day with triple-pay for overtime.

It's all about supply and demand. Always has been, always will be.

Luke Lea