Americans have never had less economic freedom than they do right now. The 2014 Index of Economic Freedom has just been released, and it turns out that the level of economic freedom in the United States has now fallen for seven consecutive years. But of course none of us need a report or a survey to tell us that. All we have to do is open our eyes and look around. At this point our entire society is completely dominated by control freaks and bureaucrats. Our economy is literally being suffocated to death by millions of laws, rules and regulations and each year brings a fresh tsunami of red tape. As you will see below, the U.S. government issued more than 80,000 pages of brand new rules and regulations last year on top of what we already had. Even if we didn't have all of the other monumental economic problems that we are currently facing, all of this bureaucracy alone would be enough to kill our economy.
Between lack of cash flows, insurmountable liabilities, an untenable pension funding, even insider fraud, we thought we had seen all the various reasons for filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And then along came the Catholic Diocese of Stockton which announced that it would join its host city and seek bankruptcy protection "in the wake of the church's sexual-abuse scandal." As WSJ reported, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire said in a news release Monday that the diocese would seek bankruptcy protection Wednesday, explaining that reorganization was the only option for dealing with mounting legal costs related to abuse by priests. The bishop said the diocese has spent $14 million in legal settlements and judgments over the past 20 years dealing with abuse allegations, and doesn't have funds available to settle pending lawsuits or address future allegations. The punchline: "Very simply, we are in this situation because of those priests in our diocese who perpetrated grave, evil acts of child sexual abuse."
For the current administration, now with a fresh developer to fix all the problems (with the website), the reality of public perception over Obamacare has gone from worst to worster-er this week. As Gallup polls show, nearly half of Americans say the Affordable Care Act will make the healthcare situation in the U.S. worse in the long run. When asked more broadly if they approve or disapprove of Obamacare, Americans come down on the disapprove side by 54% to 38% - a new record low for 'approval'.
In 1970, when 11% of adult Americans had bachelor's degrees or more, degree holders were viewed as the nation's best and brightest. Today, with over 30% with degrees, as the WSJ notes, a significant portion of college graduates are similar to the average American - not demonstrably smarter or more disciplined. Furthermore, declining academic standards and grade inflation add to employers' perceptions that college degrees say little about job readiness. As we noted recently, change is coming as more and more realize college may not be worth it. Educational entrepreneurship offers hope that creative destruction is coming to higher education. The cleansing would be good for a higher education system still tied to its medieval origins - and for the students it's robbing.
The following poll results from Gallup may represent the most significant domestic news story in 2014 to-date. Gallup polling in 2013 showed that the highest number of Americans now identify as Independents since it starting asking the question 25 years ago. Specifically, 42% identify as Independents, versus 31% as Democrats and 25% as Republicans. Even more interesting, the trend accelerated as the year progressed.
Retail sales are not currently indicating that the consumer is about to "drop kick" a game winning field goal in the coming year. While the consumer is definitely "not dead," as evidenced by increased leverage in the recent credit reports, they are also not currently in the position to substantially increase demand five years into an economic recovery. Our perception is that the "struggle through" economy is likely to remain in 2014 which will disappoint the economic bulls.
No surprises here: hours after we reported that youth unemployment in Spain soared to fresh record highs (surpassing the already nosebleeding number of jobless people under 25 in Greece), here comes Gallup with a poll showing the approval rating of the (unelected) EU Leadership across the peripheral countries. And while there was a slight uptick in approval among respondents in Italy - the country that has so far benefited the most from the Italian central banker at the helm of the ECB - the EU's lack of approval just rose to all time highs in the two countries that continue to see their youth employment hopes crushed by the European experiment, with approval in Spain sliding to 27% (from 55% in 2010), while Greece, plunged to only 19%, which makes one wonder: just who has an interest in keeping Greece in Europe?
The economist Herbert Stein once said that if something can't go on forever, it will stop. The pattern of the last few decades, in which higher education costs grew much faster than incomes, with the difference made up by borrowing, can't go on forever... There is no point in trying to preserve the old regime as "working your way through college" is now impossible. For an 18-year-old, investing such a six-figure sum in an education without a payoff makes no more sense than buying a Ferrari on credit.
As the New Year brings the actual implementation of Obamacare, it appears in reality things are not as great as many were promised. A recent Gallup survey found that only 7% called their Obamacare experience "very positive" with a stunning 29% seeing it "very negative." But as The Daily Mail found, from Northern Virginia hospitals turning away sick people because they can't determine whether their Obamacare insurance plans are in effect to high deductibles and long waits for authorizations; as many as one-third of the administration's claimed 2.1 million enrollees remain unsure of their coverage. The 'lie of the year' in 2013 may be even bigger in 2014.
In America today, there are close to 50 million people living in poverty and there are more than 100 million people that get money from the federal government every month. As the middle class disintegrates, poverty is climbing to unprecedented levels. Even though the stock market has been setting record high after record high, the amount of anger and frustration boiling just under the surface in our nation grows with each passing day. And now extended unemployment benefits have been cut off for 1.3 million unemployed Americans, and it is being projected that a total of 5 million unemployed Americans will lose their benefits by the end of 2014. In addition, 47 million Americans recently had their food stamp benefits reduced. The conditions for a "perfect storm" are certainly being created. So how much longer will it be until we see all of this anger and frustration boil over in the streets of our major cities? Is America about to reach a breaking point?
During 2013, America continued to steadily march down a self-destructive path toward oblivion. As a society, our debt levels are completely and totally out of control. Our financial system has been transformed into the largest casino on the entire planet and our big banks are behaving even more recklessly than they did just before the last financial crisis. We continue to see thousands of businesses and millions of jobs get shipped out of the United States, and the middle class is being absolutely eviscerated. Due to the lack of decent jobs, poverty is absolutely exploding. Government dependence is at an all-time high and crime is rising. Evidence of social and moral decay is seemingly everywhere, and our government appears to be going insane. If we are going to have any hope of solving these problems, the American people need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and finally admit how bad things have actually become.
Despite rumors of a 'deal', "The major issues that we think are necessary to jump-start the American economy continue to languish," reflects one lobbyist on what Bloomberg reports will be Congress's least productive year ever, with just 56 pieces of legislation signed into law so far. The former record low, reached in 1995, was 88 new laws. 2013 was supposed to be the year lawmakers, free of immediate election pressures, would revamp U.S. immigration policy, pass a debt-lowering budget and expedite a pair of trade deals. Instead, partisan rancor grew deeper; and to make matters worse, the politicians took plenty of time off - the House has been out 191 days, and the Senate 199 days.
The U.S. holiday shopping season traditionally begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, with alluring sales and promotions. On the day the ultimate discounter, Wal-Mart's CEO resigns, as Bloomberg's Rich Yamarone notes, the most agreed-upon take so far is that sales will be difficult amid a deteriorating economy - every major retailer in the Bloomberg Orange Book has made mention of the competitive market for the consumer’s dwindling dollar. Target Corp. CEO Gregg Steinhafel said, “it’s clear that the holiday season will be highly promotional and that consumers will be laser-focused on value.”
As H.L. Mencken opined, 'The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable.' It is no wonder that, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in early October, a record-low 14% of Americans thought that the country was headed in the right direction, down from 30% in September. That's the biggest single-month drop in the poll since the shutdown of 1990. Some 78% think the country is on the wrong track. Simply put, Faber explains, it is most unlikely that US economic growth will surprise on the upside in the next few years. It is more likely there will be negative surprises.
It seems, as Jim Quinn notes, the 99% are not cooperating with the 1% plan for economic recovery. As Gallup reports, average Americans plan on spending 10% less for Christmas gifts this year than last year. Not only that, but they are spending 19% less than they spent in 2007 and 18% less than they spent in 1999. The average American is spending less because they have less as the talking heads on CNBC and the rest of the MSM tell me that things are great. Opening stores on Thanksgiving will not save anyone and perhaps more critically, the last 2 times the November forecast for holiday spending slumped - the US entered recession!