Americans, Deadbeats, and Bills

President Barack Obama, the other day, announced that we’re a not a nation of deadbeats; we pay our bills.  What are the facts?

Brett Arends, in a recent Wall Street Journal Market Watch article offers some.

Far from paying our bills, the current generation of Americans—or some of them—have set records for default which probably have no parallel in the history of the human race.  During the last five years, US individuals have walked away from a staggering $585 billion in mortgages, credit card debts and other personal loans.  That works out at about $6,000 per household.

And if the numbers are to be believed, there is probably a lot more to come.

For instance,

According to the Federal Reserve, US household debts peaked five years ago at a gigantic $13.8 trillion.  Since then it has declined to $12.9 trillion—a decline of about 7%.  To put that in context, household debts today still exceed those seen at the end of 2006, near the peak of the bubble.  They are three times what they were in 1998.

The outcome includes

The total debt reduction from the peak, says the Fed, is $954 billion.  Loan write-offs [from those “walk aways”], at $585 billion, account for 60% of that.  In other words…in the last five years Americans have walked away from $3 in debt for every $2 they’ve paid off.

Does all of this make us a nation of deadbeats, though?  Let’s look at some more facts.  Arends notes

[T]his has occurred even while the federal government has bailed out bankrupt financial institutions, and flooded the economy with massive deficits, low interest rates and free money to make it all easier.

The policies have altered the incentives to make it easier to walk away from our debts.  But that’s not all there is to it.

Richard Vetter, in a same-day WSJ op-ed, offers some more facts.

From the mid-17th century to the late 20th century, the American economy grew roughly 3.5% a year.  That growth rate has since declined significantly.  When the final figures are in for 2012, the annual rate of real output growth for the first dozen years of this century is likely to be about 1.81%.

What accounts for the slowdown?  An important part of the answer is simple: Americans aren’t working as much today.  And this trend reflects more than the recession and sluggish economy of the past few years.

This chart, covering the last 65 years, illustrates the matter starkly.

Before continuing, a digression is in order.  Recall a couple of the dates Arends mentioned above.  Today’s household debt is greater than it was during the housing bubble peak in 2006.  At that time, we were already well on the way down in workforce participation, yet the Panic was still two years off.  Today’s household debt is three times what it was in 1998.  1998 is the 65-year peak in Americans’ workforce participation.  Fewer people are working today, relatively, than then, and that has nothing to do with our present economic malaise.

Back to the main program.  Vetter asked why fewer Americans are working today (after all, we have to earn an income in order to pay our debts.  Don’t we?).  After all,

[i]f today the country had the same proportion of persons of working age employed as it did in 2000 [the end of the peak in work force participation], the US would have almost 14 million more people contributing to the economy.  [Aside: so much for those 3-5 million jobs Obama’s policies have so proudly saved.]

It comes back to incentives.  The Obama administration’s Progressive policies encourage Americans to not work.  Some of those destructive policies are these:

Food stamps. Above all else, people work to eat.  If the government provides food, then the imperative to work is severely reduced.  [Food stamp program use] has grown considerably, but especially so in the 21st century: There are over 30 million more Americans receiving food stamps today than in 2000.
The sharp rise in food-stamp beneficiaries predated the financial crisis of 2008: From 2000 to 2007, the number of beneficiaries rose from 17.1 million to 26.3 million, according to the Department of Agriculture. That number has leaped to 47.5 million in October 2012.  The average benefit per person jumped in 2009 from $102 to $125 per month.
… But more is going on here.
Compare 2010 with October 2012, the last month for which food-stamp data have been reported. The unemployment rate fell to 7.8% from 9.6%, and real GDP was rising steadily if not vigorously.  Food-stamp usage should have peaked and probably even begun to decline.  Yet the number of recipients rose by 7,223,000.  In a period of falling unemployment and rising output, the number of food-stamp recipients grew nearly 10,000 a day.

Social Security disability payments. The health of Americans has improved, and the decline in the number of relatively dangerous industrial production and mining jobs should have led to a smaller proportion of Americans unable to work because of disability.  Yet the opposite is the case.
Barely three million Americans received work-related disability checks from Social Security in 1990, a number that had changed only modestly in the preceding decade or two.  Since then, the number of people drawing disability checks has soared, passing…6.5 million by 2005, and rising to nearly 8.6 million today.  In a series of papers, David Autor of MIT has shown that the disability program is ineffective, inefficient, and growing at an unsustainable rate.

Pell grants. Paying people to go to college instead of to work is traditionally justified on the grounds that higher education builds “human capital” that is vital for the country’s economic future.  But a study Christopher Denhart, Jonathan Robe and I did for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (that will be released soon) shows that nearly half of four-year college graduates today work in jobs that the Labor Department has determined do not require a college degree.  For example, over one million “retail sales persons” and 115,000 “janitors and cleaners” are college graduates.
In 2000, fewer than 3.9 million young men and women received Pell Grant awards to attend college.  The number rose one-third, to 5.2 million by 2005, and increased a million more [one-fifth] by 2008.  In the next three years, however, the number grew over 50%, to an estimated 9.7 million.  … The result is fewer people in the work force.  Meanwhile the mismatch grows between the number of college graduates and the jobs that require a college education.

Extended unemployment benefits. Since the 1930s, the unemployment-insurance system has been designed to lend a short-term, temporary helping hand to folks losing their jobs, allowing them some breathing room to look for new positions.  Yet the traditional 26-week benefit has been continuously extended over the past four years—many persons out of work a year or more are still receiving benefits.

We don’t pay our bills.  But we’re not deadbeats, either; Progressive policies have simply altered the incentives.  It’s the rational (if not moral) choice to go the cheaper route—the route that welfare programs and Progressive excusals incentivize—the route of not working, and “walking away” from our debts.  Even bankruptcy itself has lost its moral stigma.  (That failure is on us, though, not our government.)  Obama is right—we’re not a nation of deadbeats.  But he’d like us to become a nation of government dependents for whom the rational, if not moral, choice is continued dependency.  And that makes it tough for us to pay our bills—individually or as a nation.

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