Tuesday, April 23, 2019

American Despair

Life expectancy in the US declined for the third consecutive year in 2017. Americans could expect to live to 78.6 years, down from 78.7 years in 2016. In all, life expectancy fell 0.3 years from 2014 to 2017. Most alarmingly, rates of death even increased among adults between the ages of 25 to 34.

It was a rather stunning development since successive declines of that sort had not been witnessed since World War I, a span of 100 years. At that time, the world was gripped by a global flu pandemic. Since then, life expectancy had been continually progressing due to medical advances and better-coordinated public health efforts.

The opioid epidemic, suicide and alcoholism (i.e., alcohol overdoses, cirrhosis) are all driving this steady decline in life expectancy. The rates of these types of death are all surging.

There were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2017, according to the CDC, a 10 percent increase from 2016. That amounts to 192 overdose deaths every single day.

The national suicide rate increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017, according to the CDC. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, an average of 129 suicides per day. Suicide is at its highest point in 50 years and is now the second-leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 35.

Even alcohol-related deaths are on the rise. An estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, which makes alcohol the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

These are all indicators of widespread, national despair.

What’s driving this? It’s likely a number of factors.

In what has to qualify as a national emergency, 61 percent of Americans don't have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency. Since this is the status of the majority, you may well be one of them. If so, you know just how stressful this is. It’s like a weight that’s never lifted.

It isn’t that much of a surprise when you consider how little the typical American earns. The median (middle) income per capita in 2017 was just $31,786, according to Census Bureau data. The most stunning thing about it is that half of Americans earn even less!

The real average wage of American workers (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. In fact, the $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today, according to Pew Research.

Additionally, the share of wealth held by the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell from just over 33 percent to less than 23 percent from 1989 to 2016.

With stagnant wages and a shrinking piece of the wealth pie, debts are growing.

As of the last quarter of 2018, total US household debt stood at $13.58 trillion, nearly a trillion dollars above its pre-recession peak.

Experian data from the fourth quarter of 2018 revealed record-setting debt in several credit categories:

• Mortgage debt reached a new high of $9.4 trillion.

• Student loan debt reached a record high of $1.37 trillion.

• Auto loan balances hit $1.27 trillion, an all-time high, coupled with a new record for the average monthly auto payment, at $523.

• Credit card debt reached an all-time high of $834 billion.

• Personal loan debt totaled $291 billion and was the fastest-growing type of consumer debt in the past year.

Keep in mind that these figures are from the fourth quarter of 2018; they’ve only grown larger since then.

Remember what a big news story it was when student debt topped $1 trillion back in 2011? Well, it’s now over $1.5 trillion. That means it’s risen an additional 50 percent in less than a decade.

But Americans’ problems go well beyond money and finances. We all know that Congress doesn’t give a damn about what we think. Our elected officials in Washington serve only their corporate masters.

Professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page from Northwestern University looked at more than 20 years worth of data and found that the opinions of 90 percent of Americans have essentially no impact at all. As the professors noted, "The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” What does have influence? You guessed it -- money.

Americans feel powerless and at the mercy of corporate and government forces much larger than them. It’s like David versus Goliath. The deck is stacked and Americans feel that their battles are already lost.

Trust in institutions has been deeply eroded or nearly ruined. Public confidence in Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, Big Business, banks, newspapers, TV news, the medical system, churches/religion and the criminal justice system are all at deplorable levels.

Speaking of the criminal justice system, the United States easily tops all nations in incarceration rates, with over 700 people behind bars per 100,000 in the population as a whole. Russia incarcerates about 500 per 100,000; Singapore just under 250; France about 100; and well toward the bottom is Japan, at 55.

Americans are feeling more lonely, too, despite the prevalence of social media.

Researchers recently conducted a study examining the lives of over 20,000 American adults. The results were shocking. Among other things, the findings revealed that 46 percent of respondents feel alone either sometimes or always, and 43 percent say that their relationships are meaningless.

About 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or a partner. One in three adults in this age range live with their parents, making that the most common living arrangement for the cohort. Think about that for a moment: a third of adults under 35 still live with their parents. That’s not liberating.

This is a seismic change in American culture. In 1978, 59 percent of 18-34 year olds were married. By 2018, that figure had plunged to 29 percent.

In 2017, the US census reported 110.6 million unmarried people over the age of 18 — that’s 45.2 percent of the American adult population. It's the highest number in US history.

Yet, studies have shown that married people tend to be healthier and live longer, though the reasons why are still not clearly understood.

Our health is not all that good, especially given the amount of money the nation spends on healthcare. Health spending per person in the U.S. was $10,224 in 2017, which was 28% higher than Switzerland, the next highest per capita spender.

On average, other wealthy countries spend about half as much per person on health as the U.S. spends. It's not money well spent.

The CDC reported in 2016 that obesity affected about 93.3 million US adults, or 40 percent of the adult population. In all, 72 precent of the adult population is either overweight or obese.

Financial costs aside, this has horrible impacts on our national health. For example, more than 100 million adults in the US are now living with diabetes or pre-diabetes, according to a 2017 report from the CDC.

Being obese and having diabetes, for example, create more than just physical consequences; they are stressful and depressing states.

No single thing could drive this 21st Century American despair. Instead, it is the convergence of a multitude of factors that have led to a perfect storm of misery.

Examined through this lens, the surge in overdose deaths and suicides, and the commensurate decline in life expectancy is not all that surprising, though it is still quite alarming.

Too many Americans are facing financial distress and poor job prospects, despite the fact that unemployment remains historically low. They have massive debts that may seem insurmountable. They see the rich getting richer, while the masses struggle to tread water. They see corporate and other special interests controlling the political system and public policy. They trust almost no institutions anymore. Many adults live alone or with their parents, and they feel quite lonely. Too many are obese, sick and out of hope.

Taken as a whole, this is a recipe for disaster and despair. It’s led us to addiction and abuse, suicide and declining life expectancy, at a time when we should instead expect life spans to be increasing.

We need each other. We need our families and our friends, and we need to remember that we are not alone in our struggles. Ultimately, we can take better care of ourselves, and of each other.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

National Debt Reaches $22 Trillion; Washington Shows No Concern

The national debt has surpassed $22 trillion for the first time in U.S. history, according to new Treasury Department data. And trillion dollar annual deficits are now the norm, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which has issued some rather gloomy projections for the years ahead.

The CBO estimates the deficit will average $1.2 trillion each year from 2019 and 2028, for a total of $12.4 trillion. At the current rate, the nation will tack on another $10 trillion in new debt in the next eight-plus years.

This explosion in debt has occurred despite the fact that the economy has grown in each of the past nine years. In fact, this is the second-longest economic expansion since World War II ended. Employment and job creation continue to be robust. Just imagine what happens when the next recession or financial crisis unfolds and the government decides to implement another emergency spending package.

Annual deficits exploded during the Great Recession, when the government stepped in to fill the gaping void left by the crippled private sector. Yet, though we are no longer in an economic crisis, massive deficits continue because tax revenue has fallen (due to tax cuts) and federal spending continues to rise. This combination is a recipe for disaster.

The U.S. now pays an average of $1 billion every day in interest on the debt, which is money that could otherwise be spent on infrastructure, healthcare, education or anything else. The CBO projects that the costs of servicing the debt will surpass defense spending by 2025.

The public has been able to ignore this explosion in debt because interest rates are historically low, as I've previously illustrated. For example, at the beginning of this century, the yield on the 10-year Treasury averaged 6.03 percent. It fell to an average of just 1.80 percent in 2012 and is averaging 2.71 percent this year. If the 10-year were to revert to its average in 2000, the effects would be widely felt and impossible to ignore.

Higher interest rates would lead to higher borrowing costs across the economy and would surely slow economic growth, which would only worsen the effects of nation’s debt burden.

Who owns (or is owed) the U.S. debt? Most of it is owned domestically by individual banks and investors, the Federal Reserve, state and local governments, mutual funds, pension funds and insurance companies. However, 30 percent of the national debt is held by foreign governments and investors.

In a fiscal squeeze, the U.S. government will likely give precedence to foreign borrowers, otherwise they would stop lending. The government can always add new taxes on its own citizens and hope that inflation lessens the burden of the debt, even while it imposes heavy burdens on the citizenry.

Some argue that the debt isn’t such a big deal since the economy continues to grow right along with the debt. According to this argument, it’s the debt-to-GDP ratio that really matters. The U.S. economy will produce an estimated output of $21.5 trillion this year, while the debt is already above $22 trillion in February.

However, the U.S. doesn’t fund its annual budget with the entire economy -- it pays for it with tax revenues, which continually come up short. The nation must finance these annual shortfalls by selling Treasuries (aka, debt). Naturally, the country can’t service its debt with tax collections. In essence, the government issues new debt just to pay off old debt, like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. If the U.S. could finance its budget and deficit with its entire economy, we wouldn't be in this financial mess in the first place.

So, where is the reasonable concern in D.C. about this debt mountain? It’s nowhere to be found. While the GOP used to howl about the debt in past years, it has suddenly fallen silent.

The Daily Beast reported that when senior officials attempted to warn the president of the impending debt crisis in early 2017, Trump replied, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.”

That’s shirking his responsibility in a horribly negligent manner, but it merely echoes the sentiments of many elected representatives in Congress and the White House for the past few decades. Most have played a game of “kick the can,” passing along the fiscal responsibility -- and a looming crisis -- to some future group of officials.

Have no doubt, however, a debt crisis is speeding our way, like a freight train with no brakes.