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Affluent Investor | July 27, 2017

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No, CNBC, Americans Did Not “Follow the Rules”: July 4th Editorial Ignores Booming Debt

CNBC’s story “The State of the American Dream is Uncertain,” reads like a recipe for encouraging people to feel bitter and helpless because a standardized route to success no longer works the way it used to. If we hope to see a prosperous America in the world, we need to stop leading people to think that there is a single traditional recipe they can follow or (worse) that the role of government is to make that recipe work.

“The incredibly weak job market of the past five years, in particular, may mean that more people feel that they are doing everything right—working hard, going to college, following the rules—and still aren’t getting ahead.”

Is that the right way to look at what happened?

Maybe the American people need to learn a different story. Maybe America had an economic boom in the 90s and the early 2000s that masked the damage done by many changes in the rules.

Debt

Consider this chart on how US consumer debt per household has increased in a generation.

No, CNBC, Americans Did Not Follow the Rules... Graphic #1

Credit card debt per household was only $37 in March 1969. In the same month in 2009 it was $8,475. That is one major way in which the definition of “following the rules” changed for Americans. No one noticed at the time because the damage was hidden behind other economic blessings, but it was a drastic change.

Saving

The rule about “working hard,” is actually misleading. Poor day laborers work hard most of the time without expecting to reach any “dream” status. What makes hard work part of the American dream people were careful to make the rewards of their work build up over time. CNBC only mentions savings once and never acknowledges the huge practical change in “the rules” that we follow.

Here is another chart showing savings as a percentage of household income from 1929 to 2004.

No, CNBC, Americans Did Not Follow the Rules... Graphic #2

Since the time of the Reagan recovery, savings as a percentage of household income has almost continually declined.

Patience

CNBC’s article makes it seem that the American Dream was always supposed to be the personal lifetime dream of everyone. But if we look at how America was built, we know that is not true. Plenty of people came to America and worked hard at whatever jobs they could get so that their children could be better off and go to school and improve their place in life. Obviously, the habit of savings didn’t immediately change anyone’s life. It took time.

Likewise, we can’t just wave a wand and change the effect of exponential increases in consumer debt in just a short time. The rules have to include a personal commitment to a multigenerational goal.

Mark Horne has been studying the intersection of ethics and the economy since high school. He was raised in Liberia, West Africa and Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, as well as on the Atlantic coast of Florida. He graduated from Houghton College in 1989 and from Covenant Theological Seminary in 1998. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America and has pastored churches in Washington state and Oklahoma, as well as serving as an assistant pastor in St. Louis.

 

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