Are You Better Off Than You Were 17 Years Ago?

Authored by Charles Hugh Smith via OfTwoMinds blog,

We tend to measure what's easily measured (and supports the status quo) and ignore what isn't easily measured (and calls the status quo into question).

If we use gross domestic product (GDP) as a broad measure of prosperity, we are 160% better off than we were in 1980 and 35% better off than we were in 2000. Other common metrics such as per capita (per person) income and total household wealth reflect similarly hefty gains.

But are we really 35% better off than we were 17 years ago, or 160% better off than we were 37 years ago? Or do these statistics mask a pervasive erosion in our well-being? As I explained in my book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform, we optimize what we measure, meaning that once a metric and benchmark have been selected as meaningful, we strive to manage that metric to get the desired result.

Optimizing what we measure has all sorts of perverse consequences. If we define "winning the war" by counting dead bodies, then the dead bodies pile up like cordwood. If we define "health" as low cholesterol levels, then we pass statins out like candy. If test scores define "a good education," then we teach to the tests.

We tend to measure what's easily measured (and supports the status quo) and ignore what isn't easily measured (and calls the status quo into question). So we measure GDP, household wealth, median incomes, longevity, the number of students graduating with college diplomas, and so on, because all of these metrics are straightforward.

We don't measure well-being, our sense of security, our faith in a better future (i.e. hope), experiential knowledge that's relevant to adapting to fast-changing circumstances, the social cohesion of our communities and similar difficult-to-quantify relationships.

Relationships, well-being and internal states of awareness are not units of measurement. While GDP has soared since 1980, many people feel that life has become much worse, not much better: many people feel less financially secure, more pressured at work, more stressed by not-enough-time-in-the-day, less healthy and less wealthy, regardless of their dollar-denominated "wealth."

Many people recall that a single paycheck could support an entire household in 1980, something that is no longer true for all but the most highly paid workers who also live in locales with a modest cost of living.

As noted in yesterday's post, About Those "Hedonic Adjustments" to Inflation: Ignoring the Systemic Decline in Quality, Utility, Durability and Service, the quality of our products and services has declined dramatically, even as prices continue marching higher.

Meanwhile, inequality and officially protected privilege has soared, as I outline in my book Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege.

The gulf between these two narratives - the ever-higher financial statistics, and our unsettling sense that we're less secure, less healthy and less wealthy - is widening. I think the Grand Canyon is an accurate metaphor here: the mainstream media parrots glowing official statistics on the distant side of the canyon, while on the lived-in-world side, well-being continues decaying.

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FreeShitter Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:27 Permalink

For me, yes. I paid off the house, cars and no debt right now, but the country financially is 80% worse off for most, and getting worse every fucking day, culturally. The people in this country are trash. End the fed.

Endgame Napoleon 1 Alabama Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:55 Permalink

Except the married part, that type of commentary does serve the status-quo economic policy that showers unearned income—free food, free rent, free energy, monthly cash assistance, tax breaks of up to $6,269 that are really child-tax-credit cash assistance checks, workplace absenteeism privileges in the extreme, etc. on employees who have kids, whether or not they are even citizens, making work pay less and less for most citizens who don’t have kids, who don’t have minor kids or who don’t have custody of kids. Part of this may be because one income no longer supports a household.....for anyone—kids or no kids—but the government keeps adding layers of unearned income to rig the system further on behalf of citizens and noncitizens with kids. Hiring patterns and everything else follows this rigged layout.

In reply to by 1 Alabama

canisdirus Endgame Napoleon Fri, 10/13/2017 - 11:56 Permalink

There is a reason for this - the main way to expand the tax base is to increase the number of taxpayers. Those credits for 18 years return 50+ years of tax payments at higher future rates. In fact, they make even more if they can make marriage unpalatable/less likely for the offspring, so policies that result in broken homes result in more tax income for the government.It all comes down to money. Paying people to have children that turn into taxpayers, especially single mothers that produce children that become single parents themselves, results in more taxes being paid. Married couples with children are the next-best thing. Not producing children makes you a deadbeat to the government and they're more than happy to import low-IQ breeders from third world shitholes to produce children that fill that gap.The fight over DACA isn't just political, it's that letting them return is wasting a lot of money the country has invested without getting a return in the form of taxes.

In reply to by Endgame Napoleon

Paul Kersey J S Bach Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:06 Permalink

Most folks took huge hits when everything crashed in 2008 and never recovered. I dumped much of what I had (real estate) in 2005, and started buying again in 2010. Now, I'm dumping my RE again.

After being crushed in the S&L crash of the 1980s, I've got financial PTSD forever. My PTSD is getting worse. This morning, I checked the ratings of the banks I do business with. I worry that the bank ratings are fixed, and question everything I read. So while I'm financially much better off, since 2000, I'm much worse off mentally. I am one paranoid motherfu**er.

In reply to by J S Bach

TxExPat ThisIsMadness Fri, 10/13/2017 - 10:41 Permalink

Worked my though College 30 years ago.  No student loans, no subsidy from the goverment or Mom/Dad of any form.  (Some small scholarships for academics, but nothing major...).Tuition has soared so much vs the minimum wage (where most college job wages are clustered near), that it's not physically possible to do that today, there simply aren't enough hours in a week, even if you spent every single hour outside the class room at work , with no time off for sleep...  (Don't laugh too loud at that, one of my gigs was a 48 hour straight shift for an ambulance Co. on the Weekends, Small Town, "Most of the time" you could get some decent sleep time in). Point being, you can't just call the Kids today lazy, expenses have risen so much relative to wages, that a lot of options that were open to me as a Kid simply aren't there today.  I was "free from the curse of inherited wealth", the fact a lot of doors are now slammed shut for poor Kids relative to those with affluent parents isn't good for social stability.  Why would you expect a kid from the hood to honor his part of "The Social Contract" when the benifits of that Contract increasingly flow to the Wealthy?. 

In reply to by ThisIsMadness

Bigly FreeShitter Fri, 10/13/2017 - 11:44 Permalink

Same I now own all my stuff outright so better.  But worse because my company lost most of their business and put everyone out of work including me. Not a good time to look for high paying jobs post 50.Let me tell you, ZH, if I had huge debt, I would be crushed by now. Even though you think there will be debt forgiveness or hyperinflation, there is no feeling like getting the deed to your house.  You are way more in control and can weather storms MUCH BETTER.

In reply to by FreeShitter

Lumberjack Seasmoke Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:55 Permalink

I can't leap over tall buildings anymore, nowhere near as fast as a speeding bullet, damn near got run over by a locomotive, phone booths no longer exist, the Daily Planet was sold to The New York Times, was terminated and got a really shitty severance package, Lois Lane looks like hell, won't speak to me anymore and still works there. Jimmy Olsen now lives at a homeless shelter after being blacklisted for writing a Clinton expose that was never published.

Does that answer your fucking question?

In reply to by Seasmoke

Endgame Napoleon Seasmoke Fri, 10/13/2017 - 10:47 Permalink

Swventeen years ago when I was making around that much, I was working part-time in retail while going to college. Several of my colleagues in this arty, big-box retail store were working full-time and trying to live on that paltry wage to no avail. One girl was effectively homeless, shifting from one friend’s apartment to another.

Many years later, after finishing my bachelor's degree, owning a shop for years and adding four useless and often ignored licenses, I was working in financial services jobs—?the proverbial “real jobs” in offices, not in art-related retail, which is not considered a “real job,” even when you work in the finest gallery in your geographical region.

Come to find out, the “real jobs” in offices paid very little more and were staffed overwhelming by these cronies: moms with spousal income that covers rent, moms with a child support check that covers rent and moms with free housing, free groceries and child tax credits of up to $6,269 for reproducing out-of-wedlock. As one employer explained to me, these moms do not need higher pay because they “have sonethin’ comin’ in.”

These “real jobs” paid between $9 and $11 per hour. A few — not many — of the jobs that required licenses paid $12 per hour, specifically those where employers were afraid not to hire licensed people for legal

But most staff with moms who have no licenses and no degrees, either, in most cases, but who do have the central ingredient in today’s fake-feminist job market: kids that ensure them unearned income to cover their major household bills. The pay sure doesn’t.

Most of these moms take off an absolute ton of time beyond their PTO and pregnancy leave(s). This is either their consolation for low pay, or the momma managers and their mom-clique employees are just taking turns taking off whole mornings, whole afternoons, whole days and whole weeks for kids’ activities, while watching each other’s backs.

There are a few rock stars among the mom-clique employees in the use the hyperbole from interviews for the straight-commission sales jobs available to the licensed people who are charged continuing education and license renewal fees biannually. Other than one or two licensed “signers,” the licensed people are never hired / retained for the non-1099 positions. The licensed people dominate the “jobs” with no benefits, expenses for leads and chargebacks for policy cancellations. The mommas with unearned income for womb productivity dominate the jobs with low, hourly wages and benefits.

People who do not have children do not fit in the momma-clique offices, with all the back-watching absenteeism and the all-important workplace activities, like bulletin board decorating contests with a baby/mommy theme and Halloween dress-up days.

You can knock yourself out all you want, meeting the quotas every month because you are actually at work — working — in addition to generating more new business accounts and retaining more old accounts than almost all of your colleagues. It will not matter in such settings if you are not a mom, when the management and most employees are. Moms are THAT discriminatory.

From what I have noticed, the few non-absentee and high-performing mom employees, here and there in these zoo-like workplaces, are rarely rewarded in a financial sense, even when they fit in with all of the kindergarten-mom activities.

If the wage is $10 per hour — as it often is in my state, with its $19k per-capital income — employees cannot pay a full range of household bills without the layers of unearned income from spouses or government that accrue to moms with kids under 18.

A good example was a woman in credit processing. By management’s admission, their best employee was a woman who was a mom, but her kid was grown. She was paid $10 per hour and, like my colleagues from big-box retail stores 17 years ago, she was homeless, really, unable to afford the most basic staples of life, going between friends’ apartments, with her car serving as a very inadequate storage facility.

Childless, single individuals are complete dog-meat in this “working family”-obsessed, fake-feminist society, but it is no better for single women whose kids are grown, not just this one.

How about another momma with a pregnant, teenage daughter that I
worked with in an upscale mall store, where she made $10 per hour, and I, as a former shop owner with a lot more experience, made $11 per hour. She was rooting for her daughter to break up with her baby’s daddy so that she could try to live with her in subsidized housing. No, she was not in a minority group.

Contrast her with the young, unlicensed, pregnant mom with no degree who worked with me selling insurance. She was making $9 per hour. I, with a degree, 4 insurance licenses and many years of sales experience, was making $10 per hour. This single woman who was churning out kids and working the welfare-reform minimum of 20 hours per week, rather than working hard like the women who could not afford rent, had free rent, free groceries, monthly cash assistance, energy assistance and a child tax credit, not the maximum of $6,269 in her case, but just a little less for 2 kids. She had just been to the beach, compliments of her momma who was constantly bringing expensive presents into the store for her and her kids. I drove a 14-year-old Toyota Tercel. She drove a newer car. She was mocking a sibling who was also working in a low-wage job. The sibling was living with her momma because the sibling was not on the lucrative, pay-per-child, welfare-taxfare, 20-hours-of-work-in-a-low-wage-job, womb-productivity plan.

Again, I am not describing a minority mom here, although there are plenty of them, too, including tons of illegal alien mommas with a sole, male breadwinner in their households and Social Security cards for multiple, US-born kids, as I well know from working at the Department of Human Services, where they got more in EBT than I made in a week.

If nothing has exited your birth canal, it is hard for people to empathize, but in the cases described above (and many more), the low-wage workers had birthed children who were over 18.

Point being, it does not matter that wages are ever-so-slightly higher (if higher at all) than they were 17 years ago, the cost of housing, which is subsidized for many on a pay-per-birth basis, has gone up astronomically, as have other major costs.

And wages are low for most workers, period, with a little, minuscule variance awarded for education, experience, licenses, etc. Wages are sometimes slightly higher when you serve an upscale clientele, or conversely, when you work in dangerous areas of town, handling a lot of cash in areas where there are frequent, gunpoint robberies. Strangely, I have worked in upscale areas, serving the governor, bank presidents and celebrities and in the poverty industry, serving people who are barely making ends meet. I have also worked in places with a mostly middle-class clientele. So, I actually KNOW what the wage variance is.

Even at $12 per hour, you can barely make it as a single, childless employee, assuming you have a full-time job that is not a churn or temp job. Most don’t. I have never failed to meet a sales quota — anywhere — but bonuses are often sporadic. I have gotten some bonuses, often preferring to give them back than to deal with all of the melodrama among frequently absentee mommas who did not meet the quotas, but who think that people who worked their cans off to meet the quotas do not deserve a bonus for it. “They don’t need the money, they don’t have kids.”

I have only seen one job where anyone — ANYONE at all — was paid commission on a regular, predictable basis. In that job, they had to have licensed people for legal reasons, and it was quite a job in terms of danger and the volume of business.

In my state, unemployment compensation that helps to cover the cost of rent between churn jobs is not the norm, even though we are forced to pay into that system. Child tax credits of up to $6,269 and welfare for 20 hours of required work per week and out-of-wedlock reproduction are the norm, assuming the mommas stay below the income limit for welfare.

After seeing all of this, no one will ever convince me that women entering the workforce en mass did not reduce the quality of life for most, not at the top for the assortative mates who concentrate the wealth from the few good-paying jobs in fewer households, but everywhere else. We have too many people with a financial incentive to accept low pay and few hours chasing jobs. Doubling the size of the job-seeker pool by adding women and tons of immigrants — along with automation that helps make all of this part-time work and excused absenteeism for moms possible — has reduced the quality of jobs so much that it does not pay to work unless you have unearned income.

In reply to by Seasmoke

iveshrugged Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:41 Permalink

Are me and my wife better off? Sure.  But the question is why.  We lived within our means, never played the victim, assumed responsibility for our screw-ups, and so on.  We paid our debts, never defaulted on anything, and are now living basically debt free and comfortable.  In other words, we've lived our lives in a tradidtional, conservative way, and we're fine.  The real problem is the millions that have been raised to be victims and to always look for a handout, and the politicians that thrive in making promises never delivered to these poor, ignorant, lazy dolts.  Toss in terrible government schools, crazy leftist higher-ed and media, the welfare state, open boarders and basic anti-Americanism, and this is what we get.And the biggest problem???  There are way more of the dolt dipsh*ts than there are people like me and my wife.  I truly believe we're doomed.  

johand inmywallet Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:37 Permalink

In 1980, I was 1 year out of high school, in 2000, I had a small business making 300K a year and the wife was a lab supervisor in a hospital. Now, she's doing okay as a asst director in a lab but my income tanked with the business in 08-09 and never rebounded. Cost of living has snowballed, especially on the utilities side, insurance side (home and auto) and food and other basic living stuff. Wages have almost kept up to .gov broadcast inflation rates, but those rates do not reflect real world price increases. Wages should be going up 3-5% annually, just look at annual profits for major suppliers of everyday goods, if their profits are rising 5-7% a year, wages should follow.Its not just me, as said above, it's about 80% of the working middle class.

adr Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:42 Permalink

In 1980 there were thousands of companies in my industry. You could get a job almost anywhere. There are about a dozen left now, with five major companies. If you want a job you have your choice of four places in the USA that all cost double to triple to live over a place in flyover country. You are also a slave to the sociopath CEO and his Wall St alliance. 

Jack McGriff Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:44 Permalink

Yep, I'm a self made millionaire.  Couldn't get a job to save my life because of anti-white racism almost exclusively against white males, so I started my own business and made millions for the government to redistribute to losers and low IQ who don't work.  

scraping_by Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:49 Permalink

The lack of well-being points to, among other things, the sense that whatever economic security you have, it's fragile and subject to the whims of people who are  out for themselves. And it's a perception grounded in lots of good data.

Cautiously Pes… Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:51 Permalink

My family is way worse off.  Wife working as a teacher and non-stop tutoring on the side.  Me, was working in a capital markets capacity, but got canned in a 'merger of equals'.  Now working in a manufacturing capacity and love my job, but making half of what I used to.  Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, has doubled, tripled and in some cases quadrupled in price.  We are on the hamster wheel, giving it hell and huffing hard trying to keep up.  We are the broken middle class..... sigh......

Hoffman Lenz Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:52 Permalink

Charles Hugh Smith is definitely better off. ZH keeps giving him free advertising space for his books."in my book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform""in my book Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege"

Ink Pusher Fri, 10/13/2017 - 08:53 Permalink

Same Pile, Different Day.In the past 17 years ; I have gotten wiser but things have become more difficult and more expensive.The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the alleged middle class is enroute to reclassification on the poorhouse side of the scale.The media became less accurate and more corporate, the politicians became more corporate and less representative and the general populous lost a few IQ points and are moving towards devolution and being reclassified as invertebrates.Last but not least, all of them came together and decided that permitting any individual to determine their own respective legal sexual classification was a good idea.... So now we cannot even decide or tell what a man or a woman is anymore, even if it looks like or appears to be one or the other without being slapped with jail time or litigation. Especially for voicing an opinion based upon fact over personal choice or perception.The world is NOT what it appears to be. The wrapper keeps changing and what's inside is well beyond its expiry date. 

CRM114 Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:09 Permalink

I am.

Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin' all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole f***in' program.

 I split from the whole f**kin' program also. Live in the country, don't work, avoid the government. Just off to get some hardware  from the local store for a trailer I'm making, will get a cooked breakfast from the nice place next door, then get started in building the deck for my newly acquired hot tub. Gorgeous crisp Fall morning. Found my watch yesterday, hadn't seen it for four months. Have a good day, y'all. 

Silver Savior Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:43 Permalink

Yes but it was strange how it happened. I used to think the dollar was money and for some reason I could never save and got into massive debt. In 2013 I started stacking precious metals and discharged all debt. I now have real wealth and am able to save by buying more metals and it's so easy because I am buying stuff I like. Getting things like silver reverse proof coins excite me so it's paying off big time. I no longer have to worry about being broke. I can get a loan against precious metals if needed. And that loan could only take 1/100th of my stack to use as collateral. Or I could trade for fiat but I never picture doing that. So yes I am much better off today but the economy sucks and everything is going to hell around me.

GunnerySgtHartman Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:25 Permalink

Am I better off than I was 17 years ago?  Yes.Am I better off than I was six years ago?  Some ways yes, some ways no.  I have less debt but also less income, both gross and discretionary.

Event_Horizon Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:51 Permalink

Oh, I see the mistake now - that graph only references the 1%.  I know I'm not better off. I worked very hard to earn a degree in one of those STEM fields (Technology) only to see my work head overseas, get replaced by foreigners on U.S. soil, be told I'm the lazy one, then get blamed for even working my ass off in the first place. Funny thing is the states abandoned funding for all higher education costs outside of K-12. Then you have the predatory banks and the Fed offer deals too good to be true, telling young students they'll never make what their parents did unless they get into debt (unless you're a lucky illegal immigrant minority who can get racist scholarships) and work it off.  I'd say we're all worse off now. Despite this I'm still starting my own company and telling the private lenders they can settle the debt I've already paid 1.5 times over or they can &*(% off. If some irresponsible credit card addict can get tens of thousands into debt and then wipe it all out with bankruptcy - how the hell is stopping the student loan scam not a vital problem to solve?! The banks and Fed have everyone fooled into thinking students are the problem when it's the banks and the Fed making sickening profits at the expense of the future of this country. But what do I know right? This scam can't be sustained but hey - let's force another taxpayer-funded bailout for the banks and auto makers again. 

Anteater Event_Horizon Fri, 10/13/2017 - 10:00 Permalink

Remember it was the Mexicans who started the student loan program,and the Muslims in Congress who ruled you can't declare bankruptcy!They'll still go after your parents, even if you die in a one-car accident.Never fear, Populist-in-Chief and his Goldman:Pentagon will save you!...but, but it was good what you did, Donald! It was real good!You're everybody's favorite boy!GOGMAGOG!!

In reply to by Event_Horizon

venturen Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:53 Permalink

sure I am better off....but the criminals that broke the financial system....are much better off for their crimes....and the coming going to hurt A LOT.For example the state of CT is just about bankrupt...and will stop function within a decade...a number of other places...will become like Puerto Rico...before the Hurricane

DrBrown Fri, 10/13/2017 - 09:54 Permalink

This naive analysis has so many flaws it's hard to know where to start. Let is suffice to say this data came form the BLS who has changed the definitions of GDP, Income etc so many times over the last 40 years it makes it impossible to do a longitudinal comparison without serious statistical adjustments to the data. For instanc e the "real" GDP, as measured the way we did in 1980, has been negative for the last decade. But you knew that right? Unemployment, as measured accurately as was done in 1980, is currently at 22%. And on and on it goes. SO you can see the above analysis is pure rubbish!