Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Golf Course Fatalities

If you have ever wondered where your tax dollars go, you can rest assured that at least a few cents go toward collecting and analyzing information about every death in the United States. No death is unworthy of the government's attention, including the 106 workers who died at a golf course between 2001 and 2006. During the six years of data analyzed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual number of workers dying at a golf course ranged from 11 to 24. The largest share of fatalities (33) were nonhighway vehicle accidents—9 of them overturned lawnmowers. Other causes of death included falling, trench collapse, getting struck by a falling object (a golf ball perhaps?), and even airplane accidents. The report notes that any deaths occurring at miniature golf courses were not included in the analysis. Nearly half (51) of those killed in golf-course related incidents worked in landscaping. One-third were Hispanic. Source: Fatal Occupational Injuries Associated with Golf Courses and Country Clubs, 2001-2006

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why We Are Bitter

Americans are bummed out--some might even call us bitter. When asked whether the country is on the right track, a record 81 percent of the public says it has veered off course, according to a recent New York Times survey. The Reuters/University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment for April finds consumer confidence at the lowest level since 1982. The percentage of Americans who tell the Gallup daily tracking poll that economic conditions in the country are getting worse, at 85 percent in mid-April, is close to an all-time high.

The roots of our bitterness run much deeper than the housing slump or credit crisis. The roots lie in the circumstances of the nation's primary breadwinners--men. Men's earnings are not keeping pace with inflation. This problem started more than two decades ago, but until recently American families have been singing and dancing up the yellow brick road as they made their way to the Emerald City--the American Dream.

Among men working year-round, full-time, median earnings stood at $42,261 in 2006 (the latest data available). But here is the problem: The average man earns less today than he did in 1986, when his median earnings were $44,303 (in 2006 dollars). Between 1986 and 2006, then, the median earnings of the average man with a full-time job fell by more than $2,000, a 5 percent decline. Blue-collar workers are not the only ones who have felt the pinch, either. After years of steadily rising wages, the median earnings of college-educated men peaked in 2002. Their earnings have fallen 3 percent since then.

Until recently, Americans have been largely unaware of these worrisome trends because women's growing incomes hid the decline in men's earnings. Between 1986 and 2006, the median earnings of women who work full-time grew 14 percent, after adjusting for inflation. That earnings growth not only masked the decline in men's earnings, it also boosted household incomes to record highs. Women were proud of their jobs. Men were proud of their family's rising standard of living.

Now we have reached the end of the road. We are at the Emerald City, but something is not right. Women's median earnings peaked in 2002 and have fallen 4 percent since then. Just when we thought we had achieved the American Dream, the curtain has fallen away from the Wizard and revealed him to be nothing more than our own ever-harder work. Our standard of living has been rising all these years not because workers are earning more, but because households are sending more workers into the labor force. There is nobody left to earn an additional paycheck unless we put our children to work. Median household income peaked in 1999, but costs continue to rise. In a world where globalization and technological change are rewriting the rules, Americans have finally noticed that they are not in Kansas anymore.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Voting Clout

Which generation will have the most clout in the 2008 presidential election? Although younger voters are becoming more important, the baby-boom generation will still cast the largest share of votes. Here is how the votes will stack up in November:

Millennial: 19 percent
Gen X: 20 percent
Boomer: 38 percent
Older: 23 percent

Millennial and gen X voters will be outnumbered by both boomers and the older generation. Together, however, the political clout of the two younger generations will exceed even that of the baby-boom generation itself.

Source: Numbers based on voting rates by age in 2004 and projections of the population for 2008, Census Bureau

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Most Homeowners Are Not in Trouble

"Tapped-Out Consumers" was the recent headline in a Business Week article about the unfolding housing crisis. The New York Times chimed in with the sweeping claim that "Everyone from first-time homebuyers to Wall Street chief executives made bets they did not fully understand, and then spent money as if those bets couldn't go bad."

Everyone made bets? Time out. Let's check those breathless reports from the front lines of the housing crisis.

In fact, the unfolding housing crisis is hurting only a tiny percentage of homeowners. To get a realistic perspective, you have to look beyond the numerator--the people in trouble. You must also consider the denominator--the total number of homeowners. The denominator is HUGE. Last year there were 75 million homeowners in the United States. Few of them are in trouble.

Here's why: nearly one-third of the nation's homeowners--24 million--own their home free and clear, according to the latest statistics from the American Community Survey. That means they have no mortgage, no home equity loans, and are in no danger of foreclosure. While the decline in housing values may make them uncomfortable, it will not affect their bottom line unless, for some reason, they have to sell their house before housing prices resume their historically slow upward climb.

Things are not all that bad for the 51 million homeowners with a mortgage either. Most have managed their asset wisely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the nation's financial institutions, which is the reason our economy is on the brink of recession. Let's look at the facts.

1. Most homeowners with a mortgage have a traditional loan. Fully 81 percent of homeowners with a mortgage have a fixed-rate loan, and their median interest rate is just 6 percent according to the American Housing Survey.

2. Most homeowners have a substantial cushion of equity in their home, a cushion that will protect them from all but the most catastrophic price drops. Homeowners with a mortgage owe, on average, only 55 percent of their home's value--leaving room for a substantial price decline before they are in hot water.

3. Most homeowners have NOT used their home as an ATM machine. Only 13 percent of the nation's 75 million homeowners even have a home equity loan, according to the American Community Survey. This fact bears repeating because the media narrative has "everyone" spending down their housing equity on granite countertops and large-screen TVs. To repeat, more than 85 percent of the nation's homeowners do NOT have a home equity loan.

Of course, in a housing market as large as ours, even a small percentage in trouble means millions are drowning. The American Housing Survey reveals that only 3 percent of homeowners owe more than their house is worth, for example, but that 3 percent amounts to 2.5 million homeowners. Even so, these numbers are a far cry from "everyone." Everyone did not make foolish bets, but the unfolding crisis shows that everyone will be hurt by the few homeowners and the many financial institutions that did.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What's Wrong with Young People?

By now everyone has heard that teenagers and young adults do not know much about history, cannot locate Ohio on a map, and spend way too much time texting when they should be doing more important things--like listening to their elders lecture them about their many shortcomings.

Who can blame them for not listening? For some reason, it is always the young--not the old--who are being told of their failings. The old have been complaining about the young since time immemorial. But turnabout is fair play, so let's explore for a moment whether older Americans are as wise and industrious as they pretend to be. Here are three stories about old folks that could be in the news:

Glued to the Tube: Why Can't the Elderly Find Something Better to Do?
Results from a national survey reveal that older Americans have a serious addiction to television. The latest American Time Use Survey shows that people aged 65 or older spend one-fourth of their waking hours watching television as their primary activity, far more than any other age group. People aged 65 to 74 spend 3.83 hours a day watching TV. For those aged 75 or older, the figure is an even larger 4.18 hours--twice as much time as young adults spend watching TV. For expert advice on what is behind this potentially harmful addiction to television, we turn to--

Technophobes: Irrational Fear Grips Older Americans as Times Change
Health experts have detected a new syndrome infecting Americans aged 55 and older. The syndrome manifests itself as a fear of pushing buttons and prevents millions from adopting modern conveniences such as cell phones, computers, and the Internet. With nearly every young adult online and using a cell phone, the young are increasingly frustrated and alarmed at the unwillingness of the older generations to communicate with them. "What's up?" ask young people. Only 37 percent of people aged 65 or older are online, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project. Cell phone ownership is also abysmally low in the age group. Psychologists have so far been unable to explain--

Whoa! Say Older Adults--Why They Impede Scientific Progress
A new study reveals that older Americans are wary of science. According to results of the 2006 General Social Survey, most people aged 60 or older agree with the statement, "Science makes our way of life change too fast." A much smaller 40 percent of young adults agree. What is behind the attitude gap? Some say education, since young adults are much better educated than older Americans. Most young adults have been to college, while few older Americans have any college experience. Yet, because of their high voting rate, older generations determine science funding in the United States. The only way to resolve this conflict--

These stories are just as newsworthy as the ones detailing the failures of young adults, but you won't see them in the news anytime soon. Why? Because older generations, not young adults, decide what makes the news.