Little Enterprise, But Plenty of Free

America’s free enterprise system was built on enterprise. Now, all that’s left is “free.” Not free, as in the freedom to work hard and prosper, but “free,” as in free money, free time, free drugs and free entitlements.

But, of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch; when something is free for some, others have to pay for it. That would be middle-class taxpayers, of course. And yet they not only allow it to happen, they often encourage it by re-electing the same politicians and voting against real change.FF491_1

Much of the bill won’t go to today’s middle class. It will go to our children. Baby boomers, who are so into nurturing and providing the best for their kids, have stuck them and their grandchildren with a whopping bill.

Quoting Lacy Hunt, an economist with Hoisington Investment, The Wall Street Journal noted that debt in the U.S. now totals more than $69 trillion. It’s more than doubled since 2000, when Fed statisticians recorded the debt as being $30 trillion.

A doubling over more than 16 years may not seem so bad, but the economy hasn’t grown along with the debt. In 2000, debt was 294% of GDP. Today, it’s 370% of GDP. Debt will not improve the quality of life for your children as they grow and try to raise families.

Consider what’s happening.

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Happy Dependence Day

On the fourth of July, we celebrate our freedom from tyranny. Yet King George would be envious of the control the U.S. government, and state and local governments hold over American citizens today.

Our freedom is eroding and, unless major changes are made, someday it will be gone.  If America is the “land of the free,” why are college campuses and media increasingly accepting only “progressive” viewpoints?  Diversity is a great thing, but it should go beyond race and gender to include differing points of view.SR-fed-spending-numbers-2012-p8-1-chart-8_HIGHRES

President Obama has said that he is not a king, but he has acted like one, signing a seemingly endless stream of executive orders. New laws are no longer passed by Congress, but are created by executive order (environmental regulations, dropping restrictions on Cuba) or by one-party vote (the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act).

And, increasingly, Americans are trading their independence for government dependence.

Consider some of the ways in which we are losing our freedom.

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Wages Will Increase When Productivity Does

There are three things we can say about income with a degree of certainty:

  1. You’re earning less than you did before the financial crisis.
  2. You are overdue for a raise.
  3. You are unlikely to get a raise anytime soon.

If these three statements fit your personal circumstances, you can take some consolation in knowing that you are not alone and that there is likely not much you can do about it.  Using the financial crisis that began in 2007 as a baseline, the Economic Policy Institute found that wages have dropped by an average of up to 5.9%, depending on the category of worker to which you belong. Employees with advanced degrees are the only group that didn’t see its income drop, but that group didn’t see its income rise, either. declining-wages

While the rate of inflation has been low throughout that period, it is still eroding your purchasing power and affecting your standard of living.

Why is income lower today than it was in 2007?

Lower Profits.  A major reason you’re earning less—and why you’re unlikely to get a raise anytime soon—is that your employer is earning less.

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Democrats Offer Socialism vs. Near Socialism

Being America, we can choose whoever we want to be President of the United States.  So how did we end up with this group?

We have a self-proclaimed socialist and a former first lady no one trusts (with good reason) fighting for the Democratic nomination.  And we have a billionaire who seems to think anyone whose family didn’t come over on the Mayflower should be deported as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. Clinton1web_2831249b Bernie

Someone reasonable may yet emerge from the pack of presidential wannabes, but let’s take a closer look at what a Sanders, Clinton or Trump presidency would mean to your finances—and to America.  We’ll start with the two Democrats this week and take on The Donald and other Republicans next week.

As for the Democrats, this is not JFK’s Democratic Party or even Bill Clinton’s.  Both Hill and Bernie are campaigning as the saviors of the middle class by campaigning to the left of President Obama.

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Eroding Economic Freedom Means Slower Economic Growth

Being “the land of the free” apparently doesn’t apply to the American economy anymore.

Being a capitalist society with free markets, complemented by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution, have made America the freest country in the world with the highest standard of living.

And yet America’s standing is slipping.  The 2016 Index of Economic Freedom gives the U.S. a rating of 75.4 points out of 100—what your teacher would call a C.  That’s a drop of 0.8 points from last year, which is enough to nudge the U.S. out of the top 10.  But, heh, we’re way ahead of North Korea, Cuba and Iran.SR-trade-freedom-2016-chart-2

Ours is not an economy in shackles yet, but the degree of freedom needed to sustain rapid growth is eroding.  It was the eighth time in the past 10 years that the U.S. has lost ground. In contrast, more than half of the countries in the index—97 out of 186—improved their score this year and 32 recorded their highest level of economic freedom ever.

Hong Kong and Singapore lead the rankings with scores of 88.6 and 87.6, respectively, but the U.S. is also bested by New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Chile, Ireland, Estonia and the United Kingdom.

Ratings are based on 10 factors, including the size of government, regulations, degree of corruption, taxes and the openness of markets.

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How to Retire Early – Part Two

In part one of “How to Retire Early,” we focused on the need to reduce expenses and control debt.  Doing so can create the foundation for a retirement plan by making money available for investment.

What should happen next?  Here are a few suggestions:Retirement 4

Consider all sources of income.  Typically, retirement income comes from a combination of an employer pension, personal savings and Social Security income.  Compare what you are eligible to receive with what you will need.

If you have a shortfall, consider all of your options for making it up before you retire.  You may decide to work part-time.  It you have a marketable skill, you may even be able to develop a base of business that provides you with enough income to meet your needs without dipping into your retirement savings for a few years.  Or maybe you have space you can rent out to produce more income.

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What Yellen Should Have Said

The question reporters should be asking now is, what did the Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market Committee do for two days last week?

The statement it issued based on its meeting is a rehash of its last statement, which itself was not worth repeating.  Check the link from The Wall Street Journal, which you can use to compare the two most recent statements (as well as others), and you’ll see that the Fed mailed it in this time.

Yellen

These folks are managing our economy.  The fate of the world is in their hands.  And the best they can do is come up with an update to a previous statement.  No wonder the economy has practically flatlined throughout the current “recovery.”

It’s worth adding, though, that the Fed’s Seinfeld approach of having meetings about nothing may be better for the economy and for the American taxpayer than the previous chair’s pronouncements about Operation Twist and unlimited QE programs.

The latest Fed statement starts with this: “Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January suggests that economic growth has moderated somewhat.”  Really?  What does “has moderated somewhat” mean?  And where is the “information” received from?  NSA wiretaps?  Drones?  Ben Bernanke’s blog?

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Economic Dissonance

In today’s economy, the theory of cognitive dissonance is itself dissonant.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger believed that humans strive for internal consistency, and that two or more contradictory beliefs cause mental stress.  Yet in today’s world, it seems that every policy, every vote, every executive order is designed to contradict rationality and add to our collective mental stress.

We’ve given a few examples of economic dissonance in the past:

The stock market.  During six years of quantitative easing (QE), bad economic news caused the stock market to rise and good economic news caused the stock market to fall.  That’s because bad news meant more Fed bond buying and good news made bond buying unnecessary.

Higher inflation.  Lower oil prices have done more to give the economy a boost than trillions of dollars in bond buying – yet the Federal Reserve Board has fretted that the U.S. is headed toward deflation.  Its policies were designed to increase inflation to the magic rate of 2%.  Why 2%?  No one seems to know.College Costs

The unemployment rate.  The widely used U-3 unemployment rate drops when people give up looking for work and leave the workforce.  As a result, we have absurdities such as this latest report from The Boston Globe:

“U.S. employers hired at a stellar pace last month, wages rose by the most in six years, and Americans responded by streaming into the job market to find work.

“The Labor Department says the economy gained a seasonally adjusted 257,000 jobs in January. The unemployment rate rose slightly to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent.”

So Americans are “streaming into the job market” – causing an increase in the unemployment rate!

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Another Clunker

It’s like “Cash for Clunkers,” only for consumers.

You may remember that brilliant piece of Congressional economic planning, where an effort was made to boost auto sales by creating an incentive for consumers to trade in their old, environmentally suspect clunkers for new, higher mileage models.

“Cash for Clunkers” did, indeed, boost auto sales. Until the program stopped, at which time sales plummeted. Side effects included rising auto prices, a $3 billion cost to taxpayers and a negative impact on the environment, since many of the 690,000 vehicles traded in were shredded, not recycled.

Today’s equivalent is the tax increase that took place Jan. 1 to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Exuberance was abundant when economic data for December showed a rise in personal savings. Yet the exuberance turned out to be irrational; much like the initial glee over rising sales during “Cash for Clunkers.”

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Fiscal Cliff Turns Into Fiscal Bluff

“What’s a five letter word for ‘cliff’?“ an editorial page cartoon asked.  The answer: “Bluff.”

To bluff is to mislead and that’s an appropriate summary of the fiscal cliff agreement, which will raise taxes and spending, while failing to consider the country’s growing debt crisis.

The market reacted positively, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average initially up more than 2% and markets in other parts of the world showing similar gains.

The market reaction was not, we suspect, because a well-crafted agreement that benefits America had been negotiated, but because the “fiscal cliff” had been avoided at the last possible second.  Consider what the agreement does – and what it doesn’t do.

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