Archive for the ‘Economic fundamentals’ Category
Cash-strapped Greece on Tuesday raised the money it needs to avoid default when a Treasury bill matures later this week, but investor nerves are unlikely to be calmed as negotiations for the next slice of much-needed aid continue.
The rift among Greece’s official lenders over how to pare the country’s growing debt pile spilled into the open late Monday, complicating efforts for an agreement that will free up a long-delayed aid payment to the country. The European Central Bank’s reluctance to provide additional money to Greek banks poses a risk to the government, which in order to keep afloat has depended on support from local banks to sell its debt.
Repeating lies does not make them truths.
Fiscal deficits are identical in economic form and function to a tax, but that tax falls not only on income (“earnings”) but also on saved capital, and as a consequence is extraordinarily destructive to capital formation and thus economic progress.
“Financing” such deficits is identical in form and function to abusing stimulants to evade the requirement to sleep. It “works” in the short term (that is, it allows you get up and go to work) but it slowly destroys the economic vitality of the nation (as this abuse destroys your health over time) and thus makes it more-difficult to find a sustainable balance and increases the amount of damage you must absorb when you cease the abuse.
The longer the lying goes on the worse the problem is. Greece and the European Union cannot resolve their problems until they tell the truth. The media is not doing its job so long as it continues to be a part of the lying.
The United States cannot find a solution so long as we lie about the same thing; there is no simply no solution that comes from continued deficit spending, no matter how we allegedly “finance” it.
Greece is now headed for the wall with the pedal mashed to the floor, and the remainder of Europe is right behind them. Some time in the new year, by my best estimate, Italy, Spain, France or all three will hit that wall.
And so, incidentially, will we in the United States.
Advanced democracies have lost upward mobility.
Both capitalism and democracy promise the opportunity for upward mobility.Capitalism offers upward mobility to anyone with a profitable idea or productive skillset and work ethic. Democracy implicitly promises a “level playing field” of meritocracy, where talent, drive and hard work open opportunities for advancement.
Crony capitalism offers wealth to the class that already possesses it. Feudalism bestows “rights” to wealth to a favored few. In a way, upward mobility is a real-world test of a nation’s economic and social order: if upward mobility exits in name only, then that nation is neither capitalist nor democratic. Stripped of propaganda and misleading labels, it is a feudal society or a crony-capitalist economy masquerading as a capitalist democracy.
Japan is an interesting case study. Some readers of last week’s series on Japan noted that Japan was still very wealthy and life was good there. Indeed, some commentators have made the case that Japan has purposefully indebted itself to mask the wealth generated by its export machine: The Myth That Japan is Broke. (via Mike H.)
Here is last week’s series:
Narcissism, Consumerism and the End of Growth
Japan and the Exhaustion of Consumerism
The Hidden Cost of the “New Economy”: New-Type Depression
The Future of America Is Japan: Stagnation
The Future of America Is Japan: Runaway Deficits, Runaway Debts
My focus was the consequences of economic stagnation, not measuring Japan’s national wealth, and this raises the issue of upward mobility: Yes, Japan remains very wealthy, but the wealth is concentrated in a specific neofeudal class; Japan’s economy has lost the upward mobility of its long 1950-1990 growth phase.
We are blessed to have many young (20s and 30s) Japanese friends, single and married. Though it is not a random selection, it is geographically and socially diverse. In reviewing each friend/couple’s education, financial stability, homeownership and the wealth of their parents, I realized every young person (under 40) who owns a house or flat has parents who made the purchase of their education and home financially possible.
Everyone without wealthy parents–and “wealth” means enough income/savings to pay for an entire university education in cash, and then pay 50% or more of their child’s home purchase in cash–does not own a home, even those with a college education.
In other words, wealth is being transferred within the class that already earned and accumulated the wealth. It is not being earned by young people. The untidy truth is that they aren’t paid enough to buy a home and accumulate wealth for their children.
What nobody in Japan dares discuss is the fact that tens of millions of young “freeters” will never make enough to get married, much less own a home or save enough to educate their children, unless they receive a lump sum of wealth from their parents while they are young enough for it to matter. If their parents don’t have enough wealth to matter, then the freeters are doomed to membership in Japan’s expanding underclass.
So a nation can claim $3 trillion in offshore assets or whatever wealth metric you choose, but if that nation has lost upward mobility, then the wealth is increasingly concentrated in a neofeudal structure. How “wealthy” do we say a nation is that has lost upward mobility?
Once upward mobility is lost, “social recession” sets in and the social contract frays.
How different is the U.S.? Most people who don’t have physicians in their nuclear family or close circle of friends think that an M.D. is the ticket to upward mobility. In many cases, this is an exaggeration. I just received an email from an M.D. who stated that adjusted for inflation, his highest earnings were 30 years ago, in 1981. Others write to tell me that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that those without wealthy parents must borrow to attend medical school take many years to pay off, even with salaries that most people consider generous.
This is an example drawn from what most assume is the top-level “surefire ladder to wealth.” We could look at non-Elite graduates of Ivy League universities (i.e. the non-Elites accepted in the name of diversity) and see how they’re doing in terms of wealth accumulation that can be passed down to their kids. Sure, they’re “doing well” in most cases, making a comfortable living, but are they making enough to pay off their student loans, own a home that isn’t 90% owned by the bank and accumulate enough savings to not only pay their children’s education in cash but also help them buy their own home with at least 25% down in cash? If not, then they’re not really accumulating wealth that can be transferred, they’re simply consuming it.
Correspondent Chris Sullins added transferrable generational wealth to my short list of “what makes someone middle class”: Priced Out of the Middle Class(June 28, 2012). How many American households can pay for their children’s university education in cash and then fund their purchase of a home?
Here are the eight “threshold” characteristics of membership in the middle class:
1. Meaningful healthcare insurance
2. Significant equity (25%-50%) in a home or other real estate
3. Income/expenses that enable the household to save at least 6% of its income
4. Significant retirement funds: 401Ks, IRAs, income property, etc.
5. The ability to service all debt and expenses over the medium-term if one of the primary household wage-earners lose their job
6. Reliable vehicles for each wage-earner
7. Hard assets and cash that can be transferred to the next generation, i.e. generational wealth.
8. Ability to invest in offspring (education, extracurricular enrichment activity, etc.).
How many households meet these criteria? Not many. This is now a list for the upper-middle class, the top 10% who earn in excess of $150,000 a year. But even households with significant incomes and inheritances from their parents are losing items on this list.
What I am seeing, once again anecdotally, is the consumption of family wealth as America “eats its seed corn.” Families with savings are “investing” them in $120,000 per child college educations that may not qualify the young person for a job that pays enough to duplicate their parents’ purchasing power–or a job at all.
Having lost their corporate job, they’re burning $12,000 to $15,000 annually buying their own health insurance.
Having drunk the debt-is-cheap Kool-Aid, they’re heavily indebted, and much of their income goes to debt service and taxes.
Families that had significant cash wealth in 2000 are burning through that cash at an alarming rate. By the time the children are all educated and back living at home or in their own apartments, then Mom and Dad have to buy them vehicles, pay their dental bills, etc. because Junior doesn’t earn enough to actually support himself.
The wealth that could have been transferred to the next generation has been consumed suporting a “middle class” lifestyle and providing the next generation with what was once the basis for advancement: a university education, healthcare insurance, a reliable vehicle, etc. Now that jobs are hard to find and compensation is low, the next generation still needs the accumulated wealth of the household to get by.
That is not upward mobility, it is downward mobility, on a vast and largely unnoticed scale.
Charles Hugh Smith – Of Two Minds
I’m going to reprise a Ticker from 2011-10-18, which you can read here if you want the original, but in a political context.
There was once a nation that was comprised of fish. The fish lived in a pond that was 64×64 in size, or 4096 square units of surface area. As with all fish they survived on dissolved oxygen in the water, which came to the water by exchange with the atmosphere above. Plants grew in the water, receiving their energy from the sun while recycling the waste emitted by the fish as nutrients, and the fish ate the plants. All was well in the nation of fish.
But the economy of fish was limited by its growth. Some of the bottom where the fish lived was rather rocky, and not much suited to cultivation of aquatic plants. Some of the bottom was fertile, and beneath still more were various rare and natural treasures, such as energy sources that the fish could use for manufacturing.
One day a bright fish that worked for a bank called “Goldfishbank” got the idea that since plants were food, and more growth is better, the nation would be served by faster “growth.” He introduced to the pond a species of lilly that reproduced very rapidly. In fact, it produced a new lilly once each day. He began by placing just one lilly of one unit of size, or 1/4096th of the surface of the pond, in the water.
The next day there were two, and the fish nation cheered. Then four, and the fish nation demanded that this fine fish be President. Then eight, and all was even better in the world.
There were, however, some fish that became alarmed, for they had not been sleeping in school. They knew, as well, that their very survival depended on the exchange of oxygen with the air above, and that absent this exchange all of the fish would surely die.
The great prosperity that appeared to flow, however, led the scholars to be shouted down.
Unfortunately the great prosperity resulted in the price of fish dwellings, foods and fuels rising precipitously. The credit created by all of this growth, which had heretofore appeared to be impossible, made everyone feel wealthy. After just eight days what was 1 lilly had become 128; both great and permanent prosperity appeared to have blessed the fish.
Two days later the pond was 12.5% covered with lillies.
But in the middle of this prosperity there was much corruption and theft. The interest rates charged to lend money were corrupted by some of the fish banksters, who reasoned that they were merely making very smal changes in what they reported, and due to the leverage they employed, reaping billions of profits. This they did by stealing pennies from each fish per day. Nobody would jail them.
There were other fish that were involved in lending for dwellings, and they too scammed the public. Some of the lenders collapsed, yet they paid only small fines while most of the fish suffered monstrous losses, with many losing their homes.
Still other parts of the fish economy were involved in health care, and they got laws passed to make differential pricing, cost-shifting and other monopoly behavior protected, for this was their way to riches. Soon the fish nation spent twice as much on health care as a percentage of its economy as all the other fish nations, but all these monopoly protections, enacted into law, were not seen as the corruption they were.
Unemployment became a problem and the fish nation saw its standard of living decline. This was puzzling, for the proponents of the new lily had said that such prolific growth would lead to permanent prosperity. There were many who claimed that the lily was simply not prolific enough, and that means must be found to spur even more lilies to grow.
The three major political parties sparred over the unemployment and economic malaise. The two largest ones offered that taxes should be increased on the most-fortunate fish and that taxes should be decreased for all fish, respectively. But neither put forward a plan to cut down the size of the government, which was sapping an increasing amount of the economy.
The third party decided to state that it should cut the size of the government by 43%. But it refused to address the main growth drivers of the government, that being the medical industry’s special protections. Nor did that party appear to give a damn about all the scams and frauds, which had stolen monstrous amounts of wealth from all the fish.
Soon the political debate within that third party turned to whether fish should be able to smoke pot, which was currently prohibited under penalty of law, and whether a fish named Steve should be able to marry one named Larry. Some fish believed this was a civil right and of the utmost importance, while others believed it was Satanic.
Yet these were the only points of political debate on which this third party focused, instead of on the financial institutions that had skimmed off all the “prosperity” that had been promised to the fish nation by the Goldfishbank and others in the financial industry, along with the medical industry that had lobbied for their special protections and which were bankrupting the fish nation’s government.
A few of the third party analysts saw that in point of fact the lily issue was soon to kill all the fish and the entire fish nation economy. They were poo-pooed and called alarmists, for the sun was still visible in the sky above, and their rising stridency was called “divisive” or that “if you simply changes your approach you could actually influence people.” They were even told that their commentary was “self-righteous.”
But that commentary, labeled “divisive” and in fact dismissed with “that ends our conversation and damages both our working relationship and friendship” was based the simple fact that while just 12.5% of the pond was covered, the entire fish nation was only three days from extinction, and the last two days had been wasted arguing over gay marriage and dope smoking instead of addressing the impending and mathematically-certain disaster.
Government promises to public employees have created “zero-risk” Wonderlands protected from the market forces of risk and consequence. These islands of privilege are snapping back to join the real economy.
Every government entity that reckoned it was moated from the market economy will be snapped back to “discover” risk and consequence. Let’s lay out the dynamic:
1. Every government can only spend what its economy generates in surplus.
2. Every government transfers risk and consequence from itself, its employees and its favored vested interests to the citizenry and taxpayers.
3. Every government collects and distributes the surplus of its private sector to its employees, favored constituencies and vested interests.
4. Since the government (State) promises guaranteed salaries, benefits and entitlements to its employees and favored constituencies, these individuals believe they are living in a risk-free Wonderland that is completely protected from the market economy.
5. Risk cannot be repealed or eliminated, it can only be masked or transferred to others.
6. The Federal government and the Federal Reserve have pursued a policy of inflating serial speculative credit-based bubbles.
7. These bubbles inflated assets, profits and taxes, creating the illusion that blow-off speculative tops were “the new normal.”
8. Speculative credit-based bubbles misallocate capital and incentivize malinvestment on a spectacular scale.
9. Once the bubble deflates, the capital is lost or trapped in illiquid malinvestments.
10. As a direct result of the dot-com bubble, Stockton’s tax revenues (general fund) leaped to $139 million in 2001. As a direct consequence of the housing bubble, it jumped to $186 million in 2007.
11. This “new normal” encouraged the belief that the stock market would double or triple every decade into the future, generating 8%+ annual returns for public union employee pension funds.
12. The city government granted employees open-ended guarantees of lifetime healthcare coverage.
13. This meant that there was no limit on the cost of each employee’s benefits.
14. As noted here many times, healthcare costs rise by 7%-10% every year, even as the economy which supports healthcare grows by 2% on average.
15. Healthcare alone will bankrupt the nation, and the bankruptcy of entities that promised open-ended healthcare is merely one manifestation of the coming bankruptcy of the entire sickcare/entitlement Status Quo.
16. Once the stock market reverts to the mean and is revalued to the “new normal” of global recession and low earnings growth, it will decline by 40% or more and yields will remain around 2%.
17. Pension funds earning 2% at best based on expectations of permanent 8% returns cannot sustainably pay the benefits promised.
18. If the city attempts to make up the shortfall annually, the services provided to the citizenry will be gutted. The risk and consequence of malinvestment and favoritism has been offloaded onto the citizens while those protected by the government moat live “risk-free” lives of guaranteed pensions and benefits.
19. The public-employee pension and healthcare benefits were separated from the market economy with this government guarantee: regardless of what happens in the real economy, you will be paid pensions and benefits that have zero exposure to the market economy and private-sector pensions/benefits.
20. In effect, the government has placed its employees and vested interests in a moated “risk-free” zone outside the market economy. The risk that is distributed to all participants in an open market (i.e. a democracy) is transferred to the citizens and taxpayers.
21. Any government that siphons off an increasing share of its taxpayers’ disposable income (to distribute to the privileged few) in return for declining services will eventually be overthrown by the citizenry and taxpayers who must bear the full consequences of the city’s mismanagement of their capital and income.
22. Every city, county and state in the U.S. which has secured a risk-free wonderland for its favored few will “snap back” into the real economy and face the discipline of the credit market and the “discovery” of price and value.
23. Risk cannot be eliminated by government mandate, it can only be transferred to others. No government entity can maintain a “risk-free” fortress outside the market forever. The moat around Wonderland will be drained or filled, regardless of what promises were made.
24. Government has no mechanism to transparently price risk, value and return on investment. The market will “discover” all these and re-set government services and salaries accordingly.
Charles Hugh Smith – Of Two Minds
If you went out and took a poll of the American people on July 4th (Independence Day) and asked them if they are free, what would the results look like? Of course the results would be overwhelmingly lopsided. Most Americans believe that they live in “the land of the free” and that they are not enslaved to anyone. But is that really the case? Slavery does not always have to involve whips and shackles. There are many other forms of slavery. One dictionary definition of a slave is “one that is completely subservient to a dominating influence”. I really like that definition. Today, millions of Americans are slaves of the system and they don’t even realize it. Debt is a form of slavery, and millions of Americans having become deeply enslaved to our debt-based financial system. When someone enslaves someone else, the goal of the master is to reap a benefit out of the slave. You don’t want the slave to just sit there and collect dust. Today, most Americans have willingly shackled themselves to a system that systematically drains their wealth and transfers it to the very wealthy. Most of them don’t even realize that they have been enslaved even as the system sucks them dry.
Just think about it. Where is the “big money” in the United States today?
When asked that question, most Americans think of Wall Street.
Well, who controls Wall Street?
The bankers do.
The borrower is the servant of the lender, and they generate massive amounts of wealth by lending us money.
Perhaps an example will be helpful.
Have you ever run up $5000 of credit card debt? Many people have run up much, much more than that, but let us use $5000 for our example.
According to the Federal Reserve, if you only make the minimum payment every month, at a 20% interest rate it will take you 49 years to pay that credit card off and you will pay back a total of $26,169.
So you would have gotten the original benefit of spending the $5000 and you would have had to work extremely hard to pay back an additional $21,169 to the bankers.
In essence, you would be working as a servant of the bankers until you had paid back that entire debt plus interest.
Unfortunately, our entire system is now designed to get you to go into debt.
It starts before we even get into the “real world”. We are constantly told that we cannot get a “good job” without a college degree, but a college education is so ridiculously expensive these days that most of us cannot afford one without going into lots of debt.
Many of you out there know exactly what I am talking about.
Do you have a pile of student loan debt?
In fact, the total pile of student loan debt in the United States is now over a trillion dollars.
Unfortunately, when a lot of us graduated we found out that the “good jobs” that we were promised simply were not there. Last year, 53 percent of all Americans with a bachelor’s degree under the age of 25 were either unemployed or underemployed.
So many young adults are starting out life already enslaved to a gigantic pile of debt but without a good job that will enable them to comfortably service that debt.
The really “lucky” graduates from the top schools flock to Wall Street so that they can make lots of money running the debt-based financial system that is enslaving all the rest of us.
Once young people leave school, there are lots of other “debt traps” to fall into.
Once you get out into the “real world”, just about every major purchase is going to involve another pile of debt.
Do you want a house?
Do you want a car?
About 70 percent of all vehicle purchases in the U.S. now involve at least some borrowed money.
Consumer debt is particularly insidious. Our stores are filled with very beautiful things, and it is really easy to buy a bunch of stuff and “put it on plastic”.
We just keep plunging ourselves deeper and deeper into debt slavery. Most Americans never seem to learn. Over the past 30 years those of us in the “bottom 95 percent” have seen our financial shackles just get heavier and heavier. The following is from a recent CNN article….
In 1983, the bottom 95% had 62 cents of debt for every dollar they earned, according to research by two International Monetary Fund economists. But by 2007, the ratio had soared to $1.48 of debt for every $1 in earnings.
When you pile up lots of debt, you aren’t just working for yourself anymore. You are also working for those that you owe the debts to. Your hard work and sweat end up making them a lot wealthier.
Our state and local governments have enslaved themselves to debt as well. Total state and local government debt is now about 8 times higher than it was 30 years ago.
At this point, many U.S. cities are in very serious trouble with debt. In fact, another California municipality has just declared bankruptcy. On Monday, the town of Mammoth Lakes announced that it has formally filed for bankruptcy.
But this is just the beginning.
The truth is that we are a nation that is absolutely drowning in debt and we need a lot more money in order to keep up with all of this debt.
But there is a problem.
In our debt-based financial system, the creation of more money actually creates more debt.
So how are we ever going to get out of the hole that we are in?
Today, the U.S. national debt is more than 5000 times larger than it was when the Federal Reserve was first created back in 1913. This is why it is so important for the American people to realize that the Federal Reserve is a perpetual debt machine.
The Federal Reserve system itself does not make much money. The vast majority of the profits that the Federal Reserve makes are transferred back to the U.S. government.
But that is not what the Federal Reserve was created to do.
What the Federal Reserve was created to do was to set up a system where the U.S. government would borrow money and pay interest on it instead of just creating the money itself.
Last year the U.S. government spent more than 454 billion dollars just on interest on the national debt. That is a form of national slavery. 454 billion dollars that we worked very hard to make was taken from us and transferred into the pockets of some very wealthy people.
The truth is that the U.S. government does not actually need to ever borrow a single penny from anyone. As a sovereign government it could directly issue money into circulation.
But lending money to governments is very, very profitable and it is the kind of thing that wars are fought over.
For example, the First Bank of the United States (the very first central bank in our country) was established in 1791 and the charter for that bank expired in 1811 and was not renewed.
So what happened the very next year?
The War of 1812. During that war Washington D.C. was actually captured and burned. The final major battle of that war was the battle of New Orleans which took place on January 8, 1815.
So what happened the very next year?
President James Madison signed the charter for the Second Bank of the United States on April 10, 1816.
The goal has always been to enslave the American people. Debt is used to enslave us individually, it is used to enslave our businesses, it is used to enslave our state and local governments and it is used to enslave our federal government.
So are you a slave of the system?
If you are in debt, then you are a slave at least to some degree.
Unfortunately, the global financial system has become so saturated with debt that it is now on the verge of collapse. It appears that things could be getting significantly worse during the second half of this year, and the years ahead do not look very promising at all.
Sadly, most Americans do not see any of this coming. In fact, a new CNN/ORC International poll has found that about 60 percent of all Americans think that the U.S. economy will be in good shape next year.
Can you believe that?
The mainstream media has done a fantastic job of brainwashing the general public.
The “blue team” is convinced that if Barack Obama wins the election and the Democrats take control of both houses of Congress that prosperous times are on the way.
The “red team” is convinced that if Mitt Romney wins the election and the Republicans take control of both houses of Congress that the U.S. economy will be put back on the right track.
Well, the truth is that there is not going to be a solution to our economic problems on the national level. We have accumulated the greatest mountain of debt in the history of the world, and it is going to collapse and crush us no matter which brand of corrupt politicians we sent to Washington.
On July 4th, millions upon millions of Americans will celebrate “Independence Day” with cookouts, parades and fireworks without ever realizing the true nature of what is really going on.
Hopefully we can get more of them educated while there is still time.
Potential employers have to respond to the incentives and disincentives that exist in today’s world, and those do not favor conventional permanent employees.
I know you’re hard-working, motivated, tech-savvy and willing to learn. The reason I can’t hire you has nothing to do with your work ethic or skills; it’s the high-cost Status Quo, and the many perverse consequences of maintaining a failing Status Quo.
The sad truth is that it’s costly and risky to hire anyone to do anything, and “bankable projects” that might generate profit/require more labor are few and far between. The overhead costs for employees have skyrocketed. So even though the wages employees see on their paychecks have stagnated, the total compensation costs the employer pays have risen substantially.
Thirty years ago the overhead costs were considerably less, adjusted for inflation, and there weren’t billboards advertising a free trip to Cabo if you sued your employer. (I just saw an advert placed by a legal firm while riding a BART train that solicited employees to sue their employers, with the incentive being “free money” for a vacation to Cabo.)
The other primary reason is that there are few (to borrow a phrase used by John Michael Greer) “bankable projects,” that is, projects where hiring another worker would pay for the costs of the additional overhead, labor and capital and generate a reason for making the investment, i.e. a meaningful profit.
There is very little real “new business” in a recessionary, deflationary economy: any new business is poaching from an established business. The new restaurant isn’t drawing people from their home kitchens, it’s drawing customers from established restaurants.
The only competitive advantage in a deflationary economy is to be faster, better and cheaper or have a marketing and/or technology edge. But marketing and technological advantages offer increasingly thin edges. The aspirational demand (driven by the desire to be hip or cool) for a new good or service has a short half-life. As for technology: miss a product cycle and you’re history.
Put these together–higher costs and risks for hiring people, and diminishing opportunities for expansions that lead to profit–and you have a scarcity of projects where hiring people makes financial sense.
Faster, better and cheaper usually means reducing the labor input, not increasing it.In a deflationary economy, it’s extremely difficult to grow revenues (sales), and as costs continue climbing inexorably, the only way to survive is to cut expenses so there is still some net for the owner/proprietor to live on.
Consider the tax burden on a sole proprietor who might want to hire someone. The 15.3% Social Security/Medicare tax starts with dollar one. After the usual standard deductions, the Federal income tax is 15%, and 25% on all earned income above $34,800. My state tax is around 5%. Since every other advanced democracy pays basic healthcare coverage out of tax revenues, the $12,000/year we pay for barebones healthcare insurance is the equivalent of a tax. That’s 15% of our income. Property tax is also $12,000 annually, so that’s another 15%.
Above $35,000 in income, my tax burden is 15% + 25% + 5% + 15% + 15% = 75%.You can imagine how much money I would need to clear to be able to afford hiring someone. The number of businesses that generate huge sums of profit are few and far between, and the number of businesses that scale up from a one-person shop to mega-millions in revenues is also extremely limited.
The potential employer is faced with this reality: the money to hire a new employee will come out of my pay, at least at first. Hiring an additional worker only makes sense if the new employee will immediately generate enough additional revenue to fund his/her own wage and overhead costs, the added expense of supervision and a profit substantial enough to offset the risks.
I should stipulate that my knowledge of hiring people and being an employer is not academic. My partner and I launched a business in late 1981, in the depths of what was at that time the deepest recession since the end of World War II. We had a very diverse ethnic workforce and did millions of dollars of work. Rather than make a fortune I lost $50,000 and had to mortgage the house we’d built by hand to make good all debts. I exited in 1987 with my personal integrity intact: nobody lost money working for us.
The losses were basically the result of me pushing the outer boundaries of my experience and thus my competence in an unforgiving, very competitive environment. The learning curve in business is steep and pricey.
I have also been involved in saving/managing a small non-profit organization that had expanded payroll far beyond what the organization’s revenues could support.
What newly minted employers understand that employees rarely understand is that the overhead costs of hiring even one person do not scale at first. To hire one person, even part-time, the employer needs to set up a complex infrastructure to manage the payroll taxes and accounting, and comply with a variety of statutes. If the employer does not follow the many laws regarding labor, witholding taxes, workers compensation, liability coverage, disability insurance, unemployment insurance and so on, then the employer is at risk of penalties and/or lawsuits.
If a business does $1 million in gross receipts a year and already has five employees and a manager, it’s not that burdensome to hire a seventh employee–the framework is all set up. But the cost of setting all that up for employee #1 is not trivial, especially when you realize the complex machinery all has to be overseen and managed.
In the Silicon valley model, a couple of guys/gals work feverishly in the living room/garage until they have a product/service to sell to venture capital. If the pitch succeeds, the VCs give them a couple million dollars and they hire a manager to sort out all the paperwork, management, etc.
Most small businesses/proprietors don’t get handed a couple million dollars. They have to grow organically, one step at a time. Each expansionist step is fraught with risks, especially when opportunities to grow revenue are few and far between and are generally crowded with competitors.
Thirty years ago the employer’s share of Social Security tax was not today’s 7.65%; it was much less. Worker’s compensation rates were lower, as were disability and liability insurance rates. Adjusted for inflation, healthcare insurance was half (or less) of today’s absurdly expensive rates. To pay someone a modest $20,000 annual salary today would cost at least $30,000 in total compensation costs, and if the employee is middle-aged or requires family healthcare coverage, it could easily exceed $40,000. That sum many be trivial in the bloated $3.7 trillion Federal government or in Corporate America, but in millions of small businesses that $40,000 is the proprietor’s entire net income.
In other words, as costs of hiring anyone to do anything have climbed while revenues have stagnated, the threshold to hire an employee keeps getting higher. Back in the day, I could hire a young person out of high school for a modest cost in overhead, and the work-value they produced to justify the expense was also modest. I could afford to hire marginal workers and as long as they didn’t get in the way too much and ably performed basic tasks then I could afford to have them on the payroll.
The same was true of older workers, veterans living on the beach who wanted work, etc.–I could afford to give all sorts of people a chance to prove their value because the costs and risks were low.
That’s simply less true today. The costs and risks are much, much higher.
Liability has become a lottery game where anyone with assets or income is a target for “winner take all” lawsuits. I would have to be insane to hire someone to work around my property on an informal basis: if the person injured himself, I would face the risks of losing my property to the legal defense costs and potential settlements that exceed the homeowners’ insurance policy.
In an office environment, I could be sued for harassment or for engendering a “stressful work environment.” If you think these kinds of cases are rare, you need to get out more.
Simply put, the feeble hope of increasing revenues does not even come close to offsetting the tremendous risks created by having employees.
There’s a Catch-22 aspect to all this; small business can’t expand revenues without employees, but the costs/risks of having employees makes that a gamble that is often not worth taking. The lower-risk, lower-cost survival strategy is to automate everything possible in back-office work and free up the proprietor’s time to grow revenues that then flow directly to the bottom line.
Managing people is not easy, and it’s often stressful. Once a proprietor hires an employee, he/she must wear a number of new hats: psychiatrist/counselor, manager, coach, teacher, to name but a few. Frankly, I don’t need the stress. I would rather earn a modest living from my labor and avoid all the burdens of managing people. (In my case, that included bailing workers out of jail, loaning them my truck which was subsequently rolled and destroyed, and a bunch of other fun stuff.)
I am not embittered, I am simply realistic. I enjoyed my employees’ company, even the one who rolled my truck and the ones who managed to get into trouble with the law. But I got tired of meetings and all the wasted motion of office management, and I got tired of taking cash advances on my credit cards to make payroll.
If anyone out there thinks being an entrepreneur/small business proprietor is easy and a surefire pathway to the luxe life, then by all means, get out there and start a business and hire a bunch of people. I applaud your energy and drive, and sincerely hope you are wildly successful.
I hope you now understand why so many businesses only want to work with contract labor/ self-employed people: having employees no longer makes financial sense for many small enterprises. What makes sense is paying someone a set fee to accomplish a set task, and that’s it, the obligation of both parties is fulfilled. If the task isn’t completed, then the fee isn’t paid.
Revenues just aren’t steady enough in many cases to support a permanent employee. When the work comes in, then contract labor is brought in to get the work done. When it’s done, they’re gone, and all their overhead costs are theirs.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to generate revenue in a deflationary economy, and extraordinarily difficult to scrape off a net income as expenses such as taxes, insurance, healthcare, etc. continue climbing year after year.
Self-employment places a premium on professionalism and results. Unlike offices filled with managers and employees, nobody cares about your problems, conflicts, complaints about the common-area fridge or your attendence at meetings. Once you’ve been self-employed for a while, and you only hire/work with other self-employed people, then you look back on conventional work places as absurdist theaters of schoolyard politics, tiresome resentments and child-parent conflicts acted out by self-absorbed adults.
Once you’re self-employed, your focus shifts to nurturing a productive network of clients, customers and like-minded, reliable, resourceful self-employed people who will give you work/work for you when you need help. Building trust and following through on what you promised to do become your priority.
The economy is different now, and wishing it were unchanged from 30 years ago won’t reverse the clock. We have to respond to the incentives and disincentives that exist in today’s world, and those do not favor conventional permanent employees except in sectors that are largely walled off from the market economy: government, healthcare, etc.
But these moated sectors cannot remain isolated from the deflationary market economy forever, and what was considered safely walled off from risk and change will increasingly face the same market forces that have changed private-sector enterprise.
If you want security and a steady income, it may be more rewarding to build it yourself via highly networked self-employment.
Charles Hugh Smith – Of Two Minds