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The Disappearance of the Middle Class - Jacob Fisker
Old 10-10-2010, 11:04 AM   #1
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The Disappearance of the Middle Class - Jacob Fisker

Preaching to the choir here, but a good read. Too bad Ariana Huffington's POV will get much more exposure than Jacob Fisker's...
The disapperance of the middle class Early Retirement Extreme: — written by Jacob Lund Fisker, Freelancer. Here's the obligatory quote, but it's better to simply read the whole thing, it's not very long. If only the USA could get this...maybe one day.

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When you have two people in similar circumstances with the same options but making different choices [LBYM vs living in debt pursuing "happiness"] and consequently ending up in different places, we should not blame external circumstances. Yet what it seems like now is like the day after the big party. People are hung over and they blame the bartender (the banks). It’s like they completely miss the connection to all the booze (credit) they were drinking the day before. Like the example in this post, people just don't seem to get it.

Maybe people need more financial education? It’s pretty clear to me that anyone who care to self-educate about credit and savings (and it’s not rocket science, you know) would do just fine as a middle class person. If anything, if the middle class is disappearing as the Huffington Post says it is, it’s not because it’s being killed off. It’s because a group living on credit above its means is simply not viable as a “species”. Not in nature, not in sociology, not in economics
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Old 10-10-2010, 11:44 AM   #2
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The modern concept of the middle class is a new one - 60 years old or so in the USA. If you look at Europe & Japan 50 years - as they built out of the rubble of WWII. If you look at Asia 20 or 30 years and not very large.

So is it very surprising that the rich/poor ratio is reverting to the mean after the post WWII boom?

The real question for the people that are surprised at the change is: How did you envision maintaining a large middle class and expanding it around the world? I doubt we would get a complete answer that would encompass population growth, free trade, social programs (SS medicade etc), taxes and debt.


If you want to streach it, you could go back to post French Revolution. But, that was a very small number of people.

Bourgeoisie - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In sociology and political science, bourgeoisie (adjective: bourgeois) describes a range of groups across history. In the Western world, between the late 18th century to now, the bourgeoisie is a social class characterized by their ownership of capital and their related cultur

A Brief History of the American Middle Class - TIME

Our modern image of the middle class comes from the post–World War II era. The 1944 GI Bill provided returning veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages. Suddenly, millions of servicemen were able to afford homes of their own for the first time. As a result, residential construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950. In 1947, William Levitt turned 4,000 acres of Long Island, New York, potato farms into the then largest privately planned housing project in American history. With 30 houses built in assembly-line fashion every day — each with a tree in the front yard — the American subdivision was born.


Is the Middle Class Shrinking? - TIME
Any substantial decline of the middle class -- even if it is partly psychological -- would be ominous for the U.S. as a whole. It is the middle class whose values and ambitions set the tone for the country. Without it, the U.S. could become a house divided in which Middle Americans would no longer serve as a powerful voice for political compromise.
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Old 10-10-2010, 11:58 AM   #3
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OK, I'll bite.... I think a better analogy is the cigarette companies. Like cigarette companies, the financial services industry pushes unsafe products, underplays/obscures the actual dangers/costs (which as experts they know), while making obscene profits and passing the substantial negative externalities onto society.

Even if you believe that society is divided into the "rich and clever" and the "poor and stupid", the continual wealth transfer to the "rich and clever" by exploiting the "poor and stupid" is not a viable strategy for long term economic stability, nor is it particularly moral.
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Old 10-10-2010, 12:06 PM   #4
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OK, I'll bite.... I think a better analogy is the cigarette companies. Like cigarette companies, the financial services industry pushes unsafe products, underplays/obscures the actual dangers/costs (which as experts they know), while making obscene profits and passing the substantial negative externalities onto society.
Cigarettes are not good for anyone. Credit is good for those who use it responsibly. Why shouldn't borrowers themselves be blamed for being ignorant of risks, living beyond their means, and failing to do their own research regarding things they may not have understood.

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Even if you believe that society is divided into the "rich and clever" and the "poor and stupid", the continual wealth transfer to the "rich and clever" by exploiting the "poor and stupid" is not a viable strategy for long term economic stability, nor is it particularly moral.
Maybe the rich get that way because they are clever. Maybe the poor become that way because they are stupid. All men may be created equal but where does it say government should try to maintain them that way?
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Old 10-10-2010, 12:50 PM   #5
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Arianna's article should get more exposure, as it is much more relevant to ordinary life.
I'm not closely acquainted with the writings of either, but just from looking over a couple of the above references, Fisker's advice seems to me a lot more constructive. Save. Don't buy too much on credit. While Arianna seems to be recommending networking -- get together and commiserate with others in the same shoes, and let's see who we can find to blame. I dunno. There is probably something more useful in her book.
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Old 10-10-2010, 01:02 PM   #6
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When you have two people in similar circumstances with the same options but making different choices [LBYM vs living in debt pursuing "happiness"] and consequently ending up in different places, we should not blame external circumstances. Yet what it seems like now is like the day after the big party. People are hung over and they blame the bartender (the banks). It’s like they completely miss the connection to all the booze (credit) they were drinking the day before. Like the example in this post, people just don't seem to get it.
I think that it's a bit more complicated than that. LBYMers have suffered from the financial crisis because of the lost value of their assets. Sure, some people with huge mortgages on McMansions have taken a "deserved" hit, but some other people with big debts and who have not lost their jobs, are benefiting from very low interest rates. If you don't need to sell your home and you make the principle payments, this is not the absolute worst time in history to have a large mortgage.
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Old 10-10-2010, 03:40 PM   #7
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If you don't need to sell your home and you make the principle payments, this is not the absolute worst time in history to have a large mortgage.
I'm confused by this statement. Can you suggest a worse time in history to have a large mortgage just for comparison. Thanks.
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Old 10-10-2010, 04:30 PM   #8
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Can you suggest a worse time in history to have a large mortgage just for comparison. Thanks.
Perhaps the last years of the Carter administration, when interest rates were quite high? (That was a good time for me, because I hadn't yet bought a house, and I was investing in deep discount bonds.)
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Old 10-10-2010, 04:35 PM   #9
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I'm confused by this statement. Can you suggest a worse time in history to have a large mortgage just for comparison. Thanks.
How about July 1984?
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Old 10-10-2010, 05:24 PM   #10
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How about July 1984?
It would be sweet to be holding a large mortgage (at a previously obtained low interest rate) in 1984. I'll agree though that it would be painful to be shopping for a mortgage then.

Actually what would be tough in 1984 would be selling your paid-for home. Buyers would be challenged by mortgage shopping at a time of high rates.

Despite the low mortgage rates available today, I think it is a tough time to be holding a large mortgage because the chances lossing your job or of your business failing are significant due to the economy. This is evidenced by today's high rate of foreclosures. But who knows if this time or another time is the worst of times?
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Old 10-10-2010, 05:28 PM   #11
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I think that it's a bit more complicated than that.
Econ 101 was many a year ago and so I'm not sure how to frame this. It is, of course, a given that we individuals are not economic islands. That was BigNick's point, I think. More, there are the endless variations of fate.

But to get back to economics ... I visited the forum off and on for a number of years before finally registering. Pre-the-great-recession, there seemed to be acute awareness here that successful ER was influenced both by personal LBYM *and* the "contribution" of the maybe majority who were buoying the economy by not LBYM. That was tempered, of course, by some awareness that the party might well not continue - which it didn't. Excess had a positive economic impact until it was, well, excess. And, of course, what is now stalling the recovery is, in part, too many folks wanting to LBYM.

Too, Dex pointed out that the "middle class" is relatively recent phenomenon. As the middle class grew in the US (and other "western" countries) it was supported with a variety of government programs. It goes without saying that there has been a period of rapid economic & technological change. A source of the current economic instability is that we are, of course, trying to compete in world markets where the source of labor is shifting. China is building it's middle class; we, at least in the US, may be in the process of in some ways dismantling ours. Any dismantling places greater demand on government programs that have fewer dollars. Some of the not-LBYMing is due to individual choice (unbridled acquisitiveness, not getting the math), some is a result of not reducing a previously experienced standard of living quickly enough, some is certainly due to economic hardship (lost jobs, medical) where the government cannot make individuals whole.

Pure economics, at least Econ 101, discussed relative reward in terms of relative ability and contribution. I don't know that it's always helpful to use that paradigm as the framework for what's happening to the middle class given the structural changes in the world economies, regardless of whether or not an individual chose or was *able* to LBYM.

Caveat - don't misunderstand - I'm not at all putting down LBYM. I did, and wouldn't be retired had I not.
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Old 10-10-2010, 05:55 PM   #12
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It's also a relatively complicated subject.

For example, I have yet to see a standardized definition of "middle class". I suspect that the definition of it has expanded over time. What gets lost in the sauce is that it's very different comparing different bases of a definition than a static definition. Both may have their place, but they are different issues.

For another, the culture has changed. An example of which is that with the advent of more women in the workplace, we also saw an increase in the age of first marriage. So just for discussion purposes, whereas before there may have been one household of two people living on $45k, there now may be two households each of which are living on $45k.

Also, one thing that such statistics generally fail to incorporate (and this goes so far as GDP) are "improvements" in quality of life. What % of households had washer/dryers/cable or sat TV/cell phones/etc. over time? How has the size of the average home changed over time? How has the quality/features of automobiles changed over time? And so on. (This is part of my point about an expanded definition of 'middle class'.)

And maybe it's just me, but I often interpret two separate questions being asked as one: there is the question of 'how is the middle class doing?' and the question of 'how much income inequality is there?".
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Old 10-10-2010, 06:27 PM   #13
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It's also a relatively complicated subject.

For example, I have yet to see a standardized definition of "middle class". I suspect that the definition of it has expanded over time
From Wiwipedia:
American middle class - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

SHRINKING MIDDLE CLASS

"The notion that the middle class is shrinking is controversial because the economic boundaries that define the middle class vary. Households that earn between $25,000 and $75,000 represent approximately the middle half of the income distribution tables provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Over the past two decades, the number of households in those brackets decreased by 3.9%, from 48.2% to 44.3%. During the same time period, the number of households with incomes below $25,000 decreased 3.5%, from 28.7% to 25.2%, while the number of households with incomes above $75,000 increased over 7%, from 23.2% to 30.4%."

"The change has not always been in the same direction. Poverty rates increased early in the 1980s until late in the 1990s when they started to go back down. Since 2000, the percent of all people living in poverty is up from 11.3% to 12.3% in 2006."

"A possible explanation for the increase in the higher earnings categories is that more households now have two wage earners. However, a closer analysis reveals all of the 7% increase can be found in households who earn over $100,000."

"A study by Brookings Institution in June 2006 revealed that Middle-income neighborhoods as a proportion of all metropolitan neighborhoods declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000. As housing costs increase, the middle class is squeezed and forced to live in less desirable areas making upward mobility more difficult. Safety, school systems, and even jobs are all linked to neighborhood types." (((The last sentence was tagged during a Wiki "good article" review.)))
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Old 10-10-2010, 07:03 PM   #14
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The middle class has been in trouble my whole life - there's some of it left?

The old rules of thumb for someone young went something like 10% of income invested, up to 25% spent on a fixed rate mortgage, up to 33% all debt with mortgage, 10 years income in life insurance.

But those guidelines may not allow somone to buy the home and car they want - to the extent that banks are willing loan above those guidelines prices will rise pushing prudent borrowers out of the market or into imprudent borrowing (they're in the position of damned if you do, damned if you don't).
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Old 10-10-2010, 07:19 PM   #15
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The middle class is not a recent phenomena - it has been around since at least the middle ages, if not ancient times: Middle class - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Although the term "middle class" was not used, Ian Mortimer gives a very good break down of classes in the middle ages in "A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England").

(The terminology is more recent, but that is besides the point.)

There is no consistent definition, other than some grouping between the upper class (being a group characterised by substantial wealth and/or status) and a lower class (characterised by comparative poverty or negative status). This sometimes turns the debate into an exercise in semantics, which is largely an irrelevancy in the context of the two articles.

It seems pretty much indisputable that:

(i) the mid-late 20th century middle class in the US and a number of other developed countries has been marginalised and, while very far from being an endangered species, is facing increasing difficulties in maintaining both its economic status in the same numbers and to the same extent and its sense of security;

(ii) globally the total number of people who can be viewed as middle class has risen dramatically.

At the risk of overly simplifying the issue, the marginalisation and decline of the developed world's middle class can be attributed to a number of factors:

1. bad policy decisions by governments. Contunually running up deficits has implications for tax needs and a material part of that burden falls on the middle class: income tax rates, property taxes, sales taxes, capital gains taxes, double taxes on dividends etc are all higher than they need be because we, as a society, have chosen to spend more than we collectively earn for far too long

2. demographic factors. In spite of the fact that they have been widely known since at least the early 1980s (and almost certainly much earlier), developed nations have persisted with policies and practices which they knew were unsustainable - pay as you go social security/pension plans being one of the worst examples

3. competition. To at least some extent, the post WWII period was characterised by developed countries (in particular the US) having relatively little competition from other countries. The number of countries which have the capability to produce and deliver the goods and services that we consume has risen significantly (arguably) begining with the Japanese and German economic miracles, followed by the rise of the Asian tigers, the economic reforms in countries as diverse and England and New Zealand in the 1980s and more recently by a number of other developing nations (e.g. China and India). To at least some extent the actual or preceived affluence in developed countries was at least partially due to the absence of competition. The dismantly of trade barriers and technological developments have contributed to this process

4. cost squeeze. Some costs which contribute to a substantial part of the middle class budget have risen materially more than inflation and more than incomes (which have been adversely affected by (among others) competition: education costs, health care and housing being obvious and substantial examples. One of the worst features of the cost squeeze is student loans - having to start life with a material chunk of student debt represents a material handicap compared to the previous generation

5. poor personal choices. If people send more than the earn and rack up consumer debt, is it any wonder that they will experience a decline standard of living? This is not exactly rocket science. LBYM has been one of the most written about financial topics of the last 30 years

Sitting around complaining about it is not going to turn back the clock to the (partially imaginary) good old days. Countries which have taken early and decisive steps to address the issues (to the extent that they can be addressed) will be in better shape going forward than others - and will serve the interests of their middle class much better. Australia set a good example with its flexible and mandatory retirement system - the unsustainable burden of the pay as you go system is in the process of being removed as an economic burden on current and future tax payers.

I agree with Midpack that financial education (especially early in life) would be a good thing. I would go so far as to suggest a mandatory exam before being given access to credit, but that would be shot down as a violation of people's rights to be stupid. I'm also not sure how many people it would actually help - even with all the knowledge in the wold people still make bad choices (even though I know it is bad for me, I still drink way too much soda).
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Old 10-10-2010, 07:30 PM   #16
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The middle class is not a recent phenomena - it has been around since at least the middle ages, if not ancient times: Middle class - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Although the term "middle class" was not used, Ian Mortimer gives a very good break down of classes in the middle ages in "A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England").

Medieval football - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

They also had football - I guess feudalism really wasn't all that different than today.
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Old 10-10-2010, 08:35 PM   #17
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One of the worst features of the cost squeeze is student loans - having to start life with a material chunk of student debt represents a material handicap compared to the previous generation
I don't understand what is so awful about student loans. I had a substantial student loan that let me finish college. I thought it was great that I could do that. Later, it took some time to repay, but, well, that is a characteristic of loans -- that you have to repay them. It didn't ruin my life. What's the problem?
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Old 10-10-2010, 08:49 PM   #18
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I don't understand what is so awful about student loans. I had a substantial student loan that let me finish college. I thought it was great that I could do that. Later, it took some time to repay, but, well, that is a characteristic of loans -- that you have to repay them. It didn't ruin my life. What's the problem?
No problem - someone has to pay the cost and it is usually better if it is the user of the good/service.

However, you do not have to go back too far in time to the point where it was far more common to finish university with relatively little debt (or none) than it is today. When I graduated, a combination of living at home, summer jobs (which paid money), part time work during the year, academic grants and subsidised tuition costs meant that I graduated with zero debt and a (very small) amount of cash in the bank. My situation was by no means uncommon. Being able to start saving for a down payment on a house from the day you earn your first paycheque is a lot easier if you are not carrying a meaningful chunk of student loans.
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Old 10-10-2010, 11:29 PM   #19
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The middle class is not a recent phenomena - it has been around since at least the middle ages, if not ancient times: Middle class - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Although the term "middle class" was not used, Ian Mortimer gives a very good break down of classes in the middle ages in "A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England").
I sure agree with this. A miller in the middle ages was by definition middle class- he was not royalty, he was not nobility, he was not aristocracy, nor was he a peasant. He was a merchant, as were traders of various kinds large and small, ship captains with participation in the voyage profits, livery operators, ships chandlers, shipbuilders, etc., etc. Clerks are another example. They could read and write, which itself was unusual and pretty much guaranteed a job opportunity.

The definition offered by an earlier post as Americans with family incomes between $25,000 and $75,000 seems very odd to me. Where in America could afamily live in anything remotely resembling middle class circumstances on $25,000? If you have kids, you might be hard pressed to do it on $75,000 too. Maybe if you have insurance and get your income from selling unappreciated assets it might work, but if your children are young I hope you have $10 million to start with.


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Old 10-11-2010, 08:58 AM   #20
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Medieval football - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

They also had football - I guess feudalism really wasn't all that different than today.
Trainee didn't say it was the same as today. He just indicated that 'middle class' did in fact exist prior to the 20th century.
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