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An Age Of Decay

An Age Of Decay

Authored by Chris Buskirk via AmGreatness.com,

This essay is adapted from "America and the Art of the Possible: Restoring…

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An Age Of Decay

Authored by Chris Buskirk via AmGreatness.com,

This essay is adapted from "America and the Art of the Possible: Restoring National Vitality in an Age of Decay," by Chris Buskirk (Encounter, 192 pages, $28.99)

The fact that American living standards have broadly stagnated, and for some segments of the population have declined, should be cause for real concern to the ruling class...

America ran out of frontier when we hit the Pacific Ocean. And that changed things. Alaska and Hawaii were too far away to figure in most people’s aspirations, so for decades, it was the West Coast states and especially California that represented dreams and possibilities in the national imagination. The American dream reached its apotheosis in California. After World War II, the state became our collective tomorrow. But today, it looks more like a future that the rest of the country should avoid—a place where a few coastal enclaves have grown fabulously wealthy while everyone else falls further and further behind.

After World War II, California led the way on every front. The population was growing quickly as people moved to the state in search of opportunity and young families had children. The economy was vibrant and diverse. Southern California benefited from the presence of defense contractors. San Diego was a Navy town, and demobilized GIs returning from the Pacific Front decided to stay and put down roots. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of the Los Angeles metropolitan area swelled from 4,046,000 to 6,530,000. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was inaugurated in the 1930s by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. One of the founders, Jack Parsons, became a prominent member of an occult sect in the late 1940s based in Pasadena that practiced “Thelemic Magick” in ceremonies called the “Babalon Working.” L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (1950), was an associate of Parsons and rented rooms in his home. The counterculture, or rather, countercultures, had deep roots in the state.

Youth culture was born in California, arising out of a combination of rapid growth, the Baby Boom, the general absence of extended families, plentiful sunshine, the car culture, and the space afforded by newly built suburbs where teenagers could be relatively free from adult supervision. Tom Wolfe memorably described this era in his 1963 essay “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline, Baby.” The student protest movement began in California too. In 1960, hundreds of protesters, many from the University of California at Berkeley, sought to disrupt a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee at the San Francisco City Hall. The police turned fire hoses on the crowd and arrested over thirty students. The Baby Boomers may have inherited the protest movement, but they didn’t create it. Its founders were part of the Silent Generation. Clark Kerr, the president of the UC system who earned a reputation for giving student protesters what they wanted, was from the Greatest Generation. Something in California, and in America, had already changed.

California was a sea of ferment during the 1960s—a turbulent brew of contrasting trends, as Tom O’Neill described it

The state was the epicenter of the summer of love, but it had also seen the ascent of Reagan and Nixon. It had seen the Watts riots, the birth of the antiwar movement, and the Altamont concert disaster, the Free Speech movement and the Hells Angels. Here, defense contractors, Cold Warriors, and nascent tech companies lived just down the road from hippie communes, love-ins, and surf shops.

Hollywood was the entertainment capital of the world, producing a vision of peace and prosperity that it sold to interior America—and to the world as the beau ideal of the American experiment. It was a prosperous life centered around the nuclear family living in a single-family home in the burgeoning suburbs. Doris Day became America’s sweetheart through a series of romantic comedies, but the turbulence in her own life foreshadowed America’s turn from vitality to decay. She was married three times, and her first husband either embezzled or mismanaged her substantial fortune. Her son, Terry Melcher, was closely associated with Charles Manson and the Family, along with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys—avatars of the California lifestyle that epitomized the American dream. 

The Manson Family spent the summer of 1968 living and partying with Wilson in his Malibu mansion. The Cielo Drive home in the Hollywood Hills where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered in August 1969 had been Melcher’s home and the site of parties that Manson attended. The connections between Doris Day’s son, the Beach Boys, and the Manson Family have a darkly prophetic valence in retrospect. They were young, good-looking, and carefree. But behind the clean-cut image of wholesome American youth was a desperate decadence fueled by titanic drug abuse, sexual outrages that were absurd even by the standards of Hollywood in the 60s, and self-destructiveness clothed in the language of pseudo-spirituality.

The California culture of the 1960s now looks like a fin-de-siècle blow-off top. The promise, fulfillment, and destruction of the American dream appears distilled in the Golden State, like an epic tragedy played out against a sunny landscape where the frontier ended. Around 1970, America entered into an age of decay, and California was in the vanguard.

 

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Up, Up, and Away

The expectation of constant progress is deeply ingrained in our understanding of the world, and of America in particular. Some metrics do generally keep rising: gross domestic product mostly goes up, and so does the stock market. According to those barometers, things must be headed mostly in the right direction. Sure there are temporary setbacks—the economy has recessions, the stock market has corrections—but the long-term trajectory is upward. Are those metrics telling us that the country is growing more prosperous? Are they signals, or noise?

There is much that GDP and the stock market don’t tell us about, such as public and private debt levels, wage trends, and wealth concentration. In fact, during a half-century in which reported GDP grew consistently and the stock market reached the stratosphere, real wages have crept up very slowly, and living standards have flatlined or even declined for the middle and working classes. Many Americans have a feeling that things aren’t going in the right direction or that the country has lost its societal health and vigor, but aren’t sure how to describe or measure the problem. We need broader metrics of national prosperity and vitality, including measures of noneconomic values like family stability or social trust.

There are many different criteria for national vitality. First, is the country guarded against foreign aggression and at peace with itself? Are people secure in their homes, free from government harassment, and safe from violent crime? Is prosperity broadly shared? Can the average person get a good job, buy a house, and support a family without doing anything extraordinary? Are families growing? Are people generally healthy, and is life span increasing or at least not decreasing? Is social trust high? Do people have a sense of unity in a common destiny and purpose? Is there a high capacity for collective action? Are people happy?

We can sort quantifiable metrics of vitality into three main categories: social, economic, and political. There is a spiritual element too, which for my purposes falls under the social category. The social factors that can readily be measured include things like age at first marriage (an indicator of optimism about the future), median adult stature (is it rising or declining?), life expectancy, and prevalence of disease. Economic measures include real wage trends, wealth concentration, and social mobility. Political metrics relate to polarization and acts of political violence. 

Many of these tend to move together over long periods of time. It’s easy to look at an individual metric and miss the forest for the trees, not seeing how it’s one manifestation of a larger problem in a dynamic system. Solutions proposed to deal with one concern may cause unexpected new problems in another part of the system. It’s a society-wide game of whack-a-mole. What’s needed is a more comprehensive understanding of structural trends and what lies behind them. From the founding period in America until about 1830, those factors were generally improving. Life expectancy and median height were increasing, both indicating a society that was mostly at peace and had plentiful food. Real wages roughly tripled during this period as labor supply growth was slow. There was some political violence. But for decades after independence, the country was largely at peace and citizens were secure in their homes. There was an overarching sense of shared purpose in building a new nation. 

Those indicators of vitality are no longer trending upward. Let’s start with life expectancy. There is a general impression that up until the last century, people died very young. There’s an element of truth to this: we are now less susceptible to death from infectious disease, especially in early childhood, than were our ancestors before the 20th century. Childhood mortality rates were appalling in the past, but burying a young child is now a rare tragedy. This is a very real form of progress, resulting from more reliable food supplies as a result of improvements in agriculture, better sanitation in cities, and medical advances, particularly the antibiotics and certain vaccines introduced in the first half of the 20th century. A period of rapid progress was then followed by a long period of slow, expensive improvement at the margins.

When you factor out childhood mortality, life spans have not grown by much in the past century or two. A study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine says that in mid-Victorian England, life expectancy at age five was 75 for men and 73 for women. In 2016, according to the Social Security Administration, the American male life expectancy at age five was 71.53 (which means living to age 76.53). Once you’ve made it to five years, your life expectancy is not much different from your great-grandfather’s. Moreover, Pliny tells us that Cicero’s wife, Terentia, lived to 103. Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of both France and England at different times in the 12th century, died a week shy of her 82nd birthday. A study of 298 famous men born before 100 B.C. who were not murdered, killed in battle, or died by suicide found that their average age at death was 71.

More striking is that people who live completely outside of modern civilization without Western medicine today have life expectancies roughly comparable to our own. Daniel Lieberman, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, notes that “foragers who survive the precarious first few years of infancy are most likely to live to be 68 to 78 years old.”  In some ways, they are healthier in old age than the average American, with lower incidences of inflammatory diseases like diabetes and atherosclerosis. It should be no surprise that an active life spent outside in the sun, eating wild game and foraged plants, produces good health.

Recent research shows that not only are we not living longer, we are less healthy and less mobile during the last decades of our lives than our great-grandfathers were. This points to a decline in overall health. We have new drugs to treat Type I diabetes, but there is more Type I diabetes than in the past. We have new treatments for cancer, but there is more cancer. Something has gone very wrong. What’s more, between 2014 and 2017, median American life expectancy declined every year. In 2017 it was 78.6 years, then it decreased again between 2018 and 2020 to 76.87. The figure for 2020 includes COVID deaths, of course, but the trend was already heading downward for several years, mostly from deaths of despair: diseases associated with chronic alcoholism, drug overdoses, and suicide. The reasons for the increase in deaths of despair are complex, but a major contributing factor is economic: people without good prospects over an extended period of time are more prone to self-destructive behavior. This decline is in contrast to the experience of peer countries.

In addition to life expectancy, other upward trends have stalled or reversed in the past few decades. Family formation has slowed. The total fertility rate has dropped to well below replacement level. Real wages have stagnated. Debt levels have soared. Social mobility has stalled and income inequality has grown. Material conditions for most people have improved little except in narrow parts of life such as entertainment.

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Trends, Aggregate, and Individuals 

The last several decades have been a story of losing ground for much of middle America, away from a handful of wealthy cities on the coasts. The optimistic story that’s been told is that both income and wealth have been rising. That’s true in the aggregate, but when those numbers are broken down the picture is one of a rising gap between a small group of winners and a larger group of losers. Real wages have remained essentially flat over the past 50 years, and the growth in national wealth has been heavily concentrated at the top. The chart below represents the share of national income that went to the top 10 percent of earners in the United States. In 1970 it was 33.3 percent; in 2019 the figure was 45.4 percent.

Disparities in wealth have become more closely tied to educational attainment. Between 1989 and 2019, household wealth grew the most for those with the highest level of education. For households with a graduate degree, the increase was 31 percent; with a college degree, it was 17 percent; with a high school degree, about 4 percent. Meanwhile, household wealth declined by a precipitous 60 percent for high school dropouts, including those with a GED. In 1989, households with a college degree had 2.74 times the wealth of those with only a high school diploma; in 2012 it was 3.08 times as much. In 1989, households with a graduate degree had 4.85 times the wealth of the high school group; in 2019, it was 6.12 times as much. The gap between the graduate degree group and the college group increased by 12 percent. The high school group’s wealth grew about 4 percent from 1989 to 2019, the college group’s wealth grew about 17 percent, and the wealth of the graduate degree group increased 31 percent. The gaps between the groups are growing in real dollars. It’s true that people have some control over the level of education they attain, but college has become costlier, and it’s fundamentally unnecessary for many jobs, so the growing wealth disparity by education is a worrying trend.

Wealth is relative: if your wealth grew by 4 percent while that of another group increased by 17 percent, then you are poorer. What’s more crucial, however, is purchasing power. If the costs of middle-class staples like healthcare, housing, and college tuition are climbing sharply while wages stagnate, then living standards will decline.

More problematic than growing wealth disparity in itself is diminishing economic mobility. A big part of the American story from the beginning has been that children tend to end up better off than their parents were. By most measures, that hasn’t been true for decades.

The chart below compares the birth cohorts of 1940 and 1980 in terms of earning more than parents did. The horizontal axis indicates the relative income level of the parents. Among the older generation, over 90 percent earned more than their parents, except for those whose parents were at the very high end of the income scale. Among the younger generation, the percentages were much lower, and also more variable. For those whose parents had a median income, only about 40 percent would do better. In this analysis, low growth and high inequality both suppress mobility.

Over time, declining economic mobility becomes an intergenerational problem, as younger people fall behind the preceding generation in wealth accumulation. The graph below illustrates the proportion of the national wealth held by successive generations at the same stage of life, with the horizontal axis indicating the median age for the group. Baby Boomers (birth years 1946–1964) owned a much larger percentage of the national wealth than the two succeeding generations at every point.

At a median age of 45, for example, the Boomers owned approximately 40 percent of the national wealth. At the same median age, Generation X (1965–1980) owned about 15 percent. The Boomer generation was 15–18 percent larger than Gen X and it had 2.67 times as much of the national wealth. The Millennial generation (1981–1996) is bigger than Gen X though a little smaller than the Boomers, and it has owned about half of what Gen X did at the same median age.

Those are some measurable indicators of the nation’s vitality, and they tell us that something is going wrong. A key reason for stagnant wages, declining mobility, and growing disparities of wealth is that economic growth overall has been sluggish since around 1970. And the main reason for slower growth is that the long-term growth in productivity that created so much wealth for America and the world over the prior two centuries slowed down.

Wealth and the New Frontier

There are other ways to increase the overall national wealth. One is by acquiring new resources, which has been done in various ways: through territorial conquest, or the incorporation of unsettled frontier lands, or the discovery of valuable resources already in a nation’s territory, such as petroleum reserves in recent history. Getting an advantageous trade agreement can also be a way of increasing resources. 

Through much of American history, the frontier was a great source of new wealth. The vast supply of mostly free land, along with the other resources it held, was not just an economic boon; it also shaped American culture and politics in ways that were distinct from the long-settled countries of Europe where the frontier had been closed for centuries and all the land was owned space. 

But there can be a downside to becoming overly dependent on any one resource. Aside from gaining new resources, real economic growth comes from either population growth or productivity growth. Population growth can add to the national wealth, but it can also put strain on supplies of essential resources. What elevates living standards broadly is productivity growth, making more out of available resources. A farmer who tills his fields with a steel plough pulled by a horse can cultivate more land than a farmer doing it by hand. It allows him to produce more food that can be consumed by a bigger family, or the surplus can be sold or traded for other goods. A farmer driving a plough with an engine and reaping with a mechanical combine can produce even more. 

But productivity growth is driven by innovation. In the example above, there is a progression from farming by hand with a simple tool, to the use of metal tools and animal power, to the use of complicated machinery, each of which greatly increases the amount of food produced per farmer. This illustrates the basic truth that technology is a means of reducing scarcity and generating surpluses of essential goods, so labor and resources can be put toward other purposes, and the whole population will be better off.

Total factor productivity (TFP) refers to economic output relative to the size of all primary inputs, namely labor and capital. Over time, a nation’s economic output tends to grow faster than its labor force and capital stock. This might owe to better labor skills or capital management, but it is primarily the result of new technology. In economics, productivity growth is used as a proxy for the application of innovation. If productivity is rising, it is understood to mean that applied science is working to reduce scarcity. The countries that lead in technological innovation naturally reap the benefits first and most broadly, and therefore have the highest living standards. Developing countries eventually get the technology too, and then enjoy the benefits in what is called catch-up growth. For example, China first began its national electrification program in the 1950s, when electricity was nearly ubiquitous in the United States. The project took a few decades to complete, and China saw rapid growth as wide access to electric power increased productivity.

The United States still leads the way in innovation—though now with more competition than at any time since World War II. But the development of productivity-enhancing new technologies has been slower over the past few decades than in any comparable span of time since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century. The obvious advances in a few specific areas, particularly digital technology, are exceptions that prove the rule. The social technologies of recent years facilitate consumption rather than production.As a result, growth in total factor productivity has been slow for a long time. According to a report from Rabobank, “TFP growth deteriorated from an average annual growth of 1.1% over the period 1969–2010 to 0.4% in 2010 to 2018.” 

In The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen suggested that the conventional productivity measures may be misleading. For example, he noted that productivity growth through 2000–2004 averaged 3.8 percent, a very high figure and an outlier relative to most of the last half-century. Surely some of that growth was real owing to the growth of the internet at the time, but it also coincided with robust growth in the financial sector, which ended very badly in 2008. 

“What we measured as value creation actually may have been value destruction, namely too many homes and too much financial innovation of the wrong kind.” Then, productivity shot up by over 5 percent in 2009–2010, but Cohen found that it was mostly the result of firms firing the least productive people. That may have been good business, but it’s not the same as productivity rising because innovation is reducing scarcity and thus leading to better living standards. Over the long term, when productivity growth slows or stalls, overall economic growth is sluggish. Median real wage growth is slow. For most people, living standards don’t just stagnate but decline.

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You Owe Me Money

As productivity growth has slowed, the economy has become more financialized, which means that resources are increasingly channeled into means of extracting wealth from the productive economy instead of producing goods and services. Peter Thiel said that a simple way to understand financialization is that it represents the increasing influence of companies whose main business or source of value is producing little pieces of paper that essentially say, you owe me money. Wall Street and the companies that make up the financial sector have never been larger or more powerful. Since the early 1970s, financial firms’ share of all corporate earnings has roughly doubled to nearly 25 percent. As a share of real GDP, it grew from 13–15 percent in the early 1970s to nearly 22 percent in 2020. 

The profits of financial firms have grown faster than their share of the economy over the past half-century. The examples are everywhere. Many companies that were built to produce real-world, nondigital goods and services have become stealth finance companies, too. General Electric, the manufacturing giant founded by Thomas Edison, transformed itself into a black box of finance businesses, dragging itself down as a result. The total market value of major airlines like American, United, and Delta is less than the value of their loyalty programs, in which people get miles by flying and by spending with airline-branded credit cards. In 2020, American Airlines’ loyalty program was valued at $18–$30 billion while the market capitalization of the entire company was $14 billion. This suggests that the actual airline business—flying people from one place to another—is valuable only insofar as it gets people to participate in a loyalty program.

The main result of financialization is best explained by the “Cantillon effect,” which means that money creation, over a long period of time, redistributes wealth upward to the already rich. This effect was first described in the 18th century by Richard Cantillon after he observed the results of introducing a paper money system. He noted that the first people to receive the new money saw their incomes rise, while the last to receive it saw a decline in their purchasing power because of consumer price inflation. The first to receive newly created money are banks and other financial institutions. They are called “Cantillon insiders,” a term coined by Nick Szabo, and they get the most benefit. But all owners of assets—including stocks, real estate, even a home—are enriched to some extent by the Cantillon effect. Those who own a lot of assets benefit the most, and financial assets tend to increase in value faster than other types, but all gain value. This is a version of the Matthew Principle, taken from Jesus’ Parable of the Sower: to those who have, more will be given. The more assets you own, the faster your wealth will increase.

Meanwhile, the people without assets fall behind as asset prices rise faster than incomes. Inflation hawks have long worried that America’s decades-long policy of running large government deficits combined with easy money from the Fed will lead to runaway inflation that beggars average Americans. This was seen clearly in 2022 after the massive increase in dollars created by the Fed in 2020 and 2021. 

Even so, they’ve mostly been looking for inflation in the wrong place. It’s true that the prices of many raw materials, such as lumber and corn, have soared recently, followed by much more broad-based inflation in everything from food to rent, but inflation in the form of asset price bubbles has been with us for much longer. Those bubbles pop and prices drop, but the next bubble raises them even higher. Asset price inflation benefits asset owners, but not the people with few or no assets, like young people just starting out and finding themselves unable to afford to buy a home.

The Cantillon effect has been one of the main vectors of increased wealth concentration over the last 40 years. One way that the large banks use their insider status is by getting short-term loans from the Federal Reserve and lending the money back to the government by buying longer-term treasuries at a slightly higher interest rate and locking in a profit. 

Their position in the economy essentially guarantees them profits, and their size and political influence protect them from losses. We’ve seen the pattern of private profits and public losses clearly in the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, and in the financial crisis of 2008. Banks and speculators made a lot of money in the years leading up to the crisis, and when the losses on their bad loans came due, they got bailouts.

Moral Hazard

The Cantillon economy creates moral hazard in that large companies, especially financial institutions, can privatize profits and socialize losses. Insiders, and shareholders more broadly, can reap massive gains when the bets they make with the company’s capital pay off. When the bets go bad, the company gets bailed out. Alan Krueger, the chief economist at theTreasury Department in the Obama Administration, explained years later why banks and not homeowners were rescued from the fallout of the mortgage crisis: “It would have been extremely unfair, and created problems down the road to bail out homeowners who were irresponsible and took on homes they couldn’t afford.” Krueger glossed over the fact that the banks had used predatory and deceptive practices to initiate risky loans, and when they lost hundreds of billions of dollars—or trillions by some estimates—they were bailed out while homeowners were kicked out. That callous indifference alienates and radicalizes the forgotten men and women who have been losing ground.

Most people know about the big bailouts in 2008, but the system that joins private profit with socialized losses regularly creates incentives for sloppiness and corruption. The greed sometimes takes ridiculous forms. But once that culture takes over, it poisons everything it touches. Starting in 2002, for example, Wells Fargo began a scam in which it paid employees to open more than 3.5 million unauthorized checking accounts, savings accounts, and credit cards for retail customers. By exaggerating growth in the number of active retail accounts, the bank could give investors a false picture of the health of its retail business. It also charged those customers monthly service fees, which contributed to the bottom line and bolstered the numbers in quarterly earnings reports to Wall Street. Bigger profits led to higher stock prices, enriching senior executives whose compensation packages included large options grants. 

John Stumpf, the company’s CEO from 2007 to 2016, was forced to resign and disgorge around $40 million in repayments to Wells Fargo and fines to the federal government. Bloomberg estimates that he retained more than $100 million. Wells Fargo paid a $3 billion fine, which amounted to less than two months’ profit, as the bank’s annual profits averaged around $19.7 billion from 2017 to 2019. And this was for a scam that lasted nearly 15 years.

What is perhaps most absurd and despicable about this scheme is that Wells Fargo was conducting it during and even after the credit bubble, when the bank received billions of dollars in bailouts from the government. The alliance between the largest corporations and the state leads to corrupt and abusive practices. This is one of the second-order effects of the Cantillon economy.

Another effect is that managers respond to short-term financial incentives in a way that undermines the long-term vitality of their own company. An excessive focus on quarterly earnings is sometimes referred to as short-termism. Senior managers, especially at the C-suite level of public companies, are largely compensated with stock options, so they have a strong incentive to see the stock rise. In principle, a rising stock price should reflect a healthy, growing, profitable company. But managers figured out how to game the system: with the Fed keeping long-term rates low, corporations can borrow money at a much lower rate than the expected return in the stock market. Many companies have taken on long-term debt to finance stock repurchases, which helps inflate the stock price. This practice is one reason that corporate debt has soared since 1980.

The Cantillon effect distorts resource allocation, incentivizing rent-seeking in the financial industry and rewarding nonfinancial companies for becoming stealth financial firms. Profits are quicker and easier in finance than in other industries. As a result, many smart, ambitious people go to Wall Street instead of trying to invent useful products or seeking a new source of abundant power—endeavors that don’t have as much assurance of a payoff. How different might America be if the incentives were structured to reward the people who put their brain power and energy into those sorts of projects rather than into quantitative trading algorithms and financial derivatives of home mortgages.

While the financial industry does well, the manufacturing sector lags. Because of COVID-19, Americans discovered that the United States has very limited capacity to make the personal protective equipment that was in such urgent demand in 2020. We do not manufacture any of the most widely prescribed antibiotics, or drugs for heart disease or diabetes, nor any of the chemical precursors required to make them. A close look at other vital industries reveals the same penury. The rare earth minerals necessary for batteries and electronic screens mostly come from China because we have intentionally shuttered domestic sources or failed to develop them. We’re dependent on Taiwan for the computer chips that go into everything from phones to cars to appliances, and broken supply chains in 2021 led to widespread shortages. The list of necessities we import because we have exported our manufacturing base goes on.

Financialization of the economy amplifies the resource curse that has come with dollar supremacy. Richard Cantillon described a similar effect when he observed what happened to Spain and Portugal when they acquired large amounts of silver and gold from the New World. The new wealth raised prices, but it went largely into purchasing imported goods, which ruined the manufactures of the state and led to general impoverishment. In America today, a fiat currency that serves as the world’s reserve is the resource curse that erodes the manufacturing base while the financial sector flourishes. Since the dollar’s value was formally dissociated from gold in 1976, it now rests on American economic prosperity, political stability, and military supremacy. If these advantages diminish relative to competitors, so will the value of the dollar.

Dollar supremacy has also encouraged a debt-based economy. Federal debt as a share of GDP has risen from around 38 percent in 1970 to nearly 140 percent in 2020. Corporate debt has had peaks and troughs over those decades, but each new peak is higher than the last. In the 1970s, total nonfinancial corporate debt in the United States ranged between 30 and 35 percent of GDP. It peaked at about 43 percent in 1990, then at 45 percent with the dot-com bubble in 2001, then at slightly higher with the housing bubble in 2008, and now it’s approximately 47 percent. As asset prices have climbed faster than wages, consumer debt has soared from 43.2 percent of GDP in 1970 to over 75 percent in 2020. 

Student loan debt has soared even faster in recent years: in 2003, it totaled $240 billion—basically a rounding error—but by 2020, the sum had ballooned to six times as large, at $1.68 trillion, which amounts to around 8 percent of GDP. Increases in aggregate debt throughout society are a predictable result of the Cantillon effect in a financialized economy.

The Rise of the Two-Income Family

The Cantillon effect generates big gains for those closest to the money spigot, and especially those at the top of the financial industry, while the people furthest away fall behind. Average families find it more difficult to buy a home and maintain a middle-class life. In 90 percent of U.S. counties today, the median-priced single-family home is unaffordable on the median wage. One of the ways that families try to make ends meet is with the promiscuous use of credit. It’s one of the reasons that personal and household debt levels have risen across the board. People borrow money to cover the gap between expectations and reality, hoping that economic growth will soon pull them out of debt. But for many, it’s a trap they can never escape.

Another way that families have tried to keep up is by adding a second income. In 2018, over 60 percent of families were two-income households, up from about 30 percent in 1970. This change is not a result of a simple desire to do wage work outside the home or of “increased opportunities,” as we are often told. The reason is that it now takes two incomes to support the needs of a middle-class family, whereas 50 years ago, it required only one. As more people entered the labor market, the value of labor declined, setting up a vicious cycle in which a second income came to be more necessary. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 put more downward pressure on the value of labor.

When people laud the fact that we have so many more two-income families—generally meaning more women working outside the home—as evidence that there are so many great opportunities, what they’re really doing is retconning something usually done out of economic necessity. Needing twice as much labor to get the same result is the opposite of what happens when productivity growth is robust. It also means that the raising of children is increasingly outsourced. That’s not an improvement.

Another response to stagnant wages is to delay family formation and have fewer children. In 1960, the median age of a first marriage was about 20.5 years. In 2010, it was approximately 27, and in 2020 it was an all-time high of over 29.18  At the same time, the total fertility rate of American women was dropping: from 3.65 in 1960 down to 2.1, a little below replacement level, in the early 1970s. Currently, it hovers around 1.8. Some people may look on this approvingly, worried as they are about overpopulation and the impact of humans on the environment. But when people choose to have few or no children, it is usually not a political choice. That doesn’t mean it is simply a “revealed preference,” a lower desire for a family and children, rather than a reflection of personal challenges or how people view their prospects for the future. Surely it’s no coincidence that the shrinking of families has happened at the same time that real wages have stagnated or grown very slowly, while the costs of housing, health care, and higher education have soared.

The fact that American living standards have broadly stagnated, and for some segments of the population have declined, should be cause for real concern to the ruling class. Americans expect economic mobility and a chance for prosperity. Without it, many will believe that the government has failed to deliver on its promises. The Chinese Communist Party is regarded as legitimate by the Chinese people because it has presided over a large, broad, multigenerational rise in living standards. If stagnation or decline in the United States is not addressed effectively, it will threaten the legitimacy of the governing institutions. 

But instead of meeting the challenge head-on, America’s political and business leaders have pursued policies and strategies that exacerbate the problem. Woke policies in academia, government, and big business have created a stultifying environment that is openly hostile to heterodox views. Witness the response to views on COVID that contradicted official opinion. And all this happens against a backdrop of destructive fiscal and monetary policies.

Low growth and low mobility tend to increase political instability when the legitimacy of the political order is predicated upon opportunity and egalitarianism. One source of national unity has been the understanding that every individual has an equal right to pursue happiness, that a dignified life is well within reach of the average person, and that the possibility of rising higher is open to all. When too many people feel they cannot rise, and when even the basics of a middle-class life are difficult to secure, disappointment can breed a sense of injustice that leads to social and political conflict. At first, that conflict acts as a drag on what American society can accomplish. Left unchecked, it will consume energy and resources that could otherwise be put into more productive activities. Thwarted personal aspirations are often channeled into politics and zero-sum factional conflict. The rise of identity politics represents a redirection of the frustrations born of broken dreams. But identity politics further divides us into hostile camps.

We’ve already seen increased social unrest lately, and more is likely to follow. High levels of social and political conflict are dangerous for a country that hopes to maintain a popular form of government. Not so long ago, we could find unity in civic rituals and were encouraged to be proud of our country. Now our history is denigrated in schools and by other sensemaking institutions, leading to cultural dysphoria, social atomization, and alienation. In exchange, you can choose your pronouns, which doesn’t seem like such a great trade. Just as important as regaining broad-based material prosperity and rising standards of living—perhaps more important—is unifying the nation around a common understanding of who we Americans are and why we’re here.

Tyler Durden Sat, 01/07/2023 - 23:30

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The Coming Of The Police State In America

The Coming Of The Police State In America

Authored by Jeffrey Tucker via The Epoch Times,

The National Guard and the State Police are now…

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The Coming Of The Police State In America

Authored by Jeffrey Tucker via The Epoch Times,

The National Guard and the State Police are now patrolling the New York City subway system in an attempt to do something about the explosion of crime. As part of this, there are bag checks and new surveillance of all passengers. No legislation, no debate, just an edict from the mayor.

Many citizens who rely on this system for transportation might welcome this. It’s a city of strict gun control, and no one knows for sure if they have the right to defend themselves. Merchants have been harassed and even arrested for trying to stop looting and pillaging in their own shops.

The message has been sent: Only the police can do this job. Whether they do it or not is another matter.

Things on the subway system have gotten crazy. If you know it well, you can manage to travel safely, but visitors to the city who take the wrong train at the wrong time are taking grave risks.

In actual fact, it’s guaranteed that this will only end in confiscating knives and other things that people carry in order to protect themselves while leaving the actual criminals even more free to prey on citizens.

The law-abiding will suffer and the criminals will grow more numerous. It will not end well.

When you step back from the details, what we have is the dawning of a genuine police state in the United States. It only starts in New York City. Where is the Guard going to be deployed next? Anywhere is possible.

If the crime is bad enough, citizens will welcome it. It must have been this way in most times and places that when the police state arrives, the people cheer.

We will all have our own stories of how this came to be. Some might begin with the passage of the Patriot Act and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in 2001. Some will focus on gun control and the taking away of citizens’ rights to defend themselves.

My own version of events is closer in time. It began four years ago this month with lockdowns. That’s what shattered the capacity of civil society to function in the United States. Everything that has happened since follows like one domino tumbling after another.

It goes like this:

1) lockdown,

2) loss of moral compass and spreading of loneliness and nihilism,

3) rioting resulting from citizen frustration, 4) police absent because of ideological hectoring,

5) a rise in uncontrolled immigration/refugees,

6) an epidemic of ill health from substance abuse and otherwise,

7) businesses flee the city

8) cities fall into decay, and that results in

9) more surveillance and police state.

The 10th stage is the sacking of liberty and civilization itself.

It doesn’t fall out this way at every point in history, but this seems like a solid outline of what happened in this case. Four years is a very short period of time to see all of this unfold. But it is a fact that New York City was more-or-less civilized only four years ago. No one could have predicted that it would come to this so quickly.

But once the lockdowns happened, all bets were off. Here we had a policy that most directly trampled on all freedoms that we had taken for granted. Schools, businesses, and churches were slammed shut, with various levels of enforcement. The entire workforce was divided between essential and nonessential, and there was widespread confusion about who precisely was in charge of designating and enforcing this.

It felt like martial law at the time, as if all normal civilian law had been displaced by something else. That something had to do with public health, but there was clearly more going on, because suddenly our social media posts were censored and we were being asked to do things that made no sense, such as mask up for a virus that evaded mask protection and walk in only one direction in grocery aisles.

Vast amounts of the white-collar workforce stayed home—and their kids, too—until it became too much to bear. The city became a ghost town. Most U.S. cities were the same.

As the months of disaster rolled on, the captives were let out of their houses for the summer in order to protest racism but no other reason. As a way of excusing this, the same public health authorities said that racism was a virus as bad as COVID-19, so therefore it was permitted.

The protests had turned to riots in many cities, and the police were being defunded and discouraged to do anything about the problem. Citizens watched in horror as downtowns burned and drug-crazed freaks took over whole sections of cities. It was like every standard of decency had been zapped out of an entire swath of the population.

Meanwhile, large checks were arriving in people’s bank accounts, defying every normal economic expectation. How could people not be working and get their bank accounts more flush with cash than ever? There was a new law that didn’t even require that people pay rent. How weird was that? Even student loans didn’t need to be paid.

By the fall, recess from lockdown was over and everyone was told to go home again. But this time they had a job to do: They were supposed to vote. Not at the polling places, because going there would only spread germs, or so the media said. When the voting results finally came in, it was the absentee ballots that swung the election in favor of the opposition party that actually wanted more lockdowns and eventually pushed vaccine mandates on the whole population.

The new party in control took note of the large population movements out of cities and states that they controlled. This would have a large effect on voting patterns in the future. But they had a plan. They would open the borders to millions of people in the guise of caring for refugees. These new warm bodies would become voters in time and certainly count on the census when it came time to reapportion political power.

Meanwhile, the native population had begun to swim in ill health from substance abuse, widespread depression, and demoralization, plus vaccine injury. This increased dependency on the very institutions that had caused the problem in the first place: the medical/scientific establishment.

The rise of crime drove the small businesses out of the city. They had barely survived the lockdowns, but they certainly could not survive the crime epidemic. This undermined the tax base of the city and allowed the criminals to take further control.

The same cities became sanctuaries for the waves of migrants sacking the country, and partisan mayors actually used tax dollars to house these invaders in high-end hotels in the name of having compassion for the stranger. Citizens were pushed out to make way for rampaging migrant hordes, as incredible as this seems.

But with that, of course, crime rose ever further, inciting citizen anger and providing a pretext to bring in the police state in the form of the National Guard, now tasked with cracking down on crime in the transportation system.

What’s the next step? It’s probably already here: mass surveillance and censorship, plus ever-expanding police power. This will be accompanied by further population movements, as those with the means to do so flee the city and even the country and leave it for everyone else to suffer.

As I tell the story, all of this seems inevitable. It is not. It could have been stopped at any point. A wise and prudent political leadership could have admitted the error from the beginning and called on the country to rediscover freedom, decency, and the difference between right and wrong. But ego and pride stopped that from happening, and we are left with the consequences.

The government grows ever bigger and civil society ever less capable of managing itself in large urban centers. Disaster is unfolding in real time, mitigated only by a rising stock market and a financial system that has yet to fall apart completely.

Are we at the middle stages of total collapse, or at the point where the population and people in leadership positions wise up and decide to put an end to the downward slide? It’s hard to know. But this much we do know: There is a growing pocket of resistance out there that is fed up and refuses to sit by and watch this great country be sacked and taken over by everything it was set up to prevent.

Tyler Durden Sat, 03/09/2024 - 16:20

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Another beloved brewery files Chapter 11 bankruptcy

The beer industry has been devastated by covid, changing tastes, and maybe fallout from the Bud Light scandal.

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Before the covid pandemic, craft beer was having a moment. Most cities had multiple breweries and taprooms with some having so many that people put together the brewery version of a pub crawl.

It was a period where beer snobbery ruled the day and it was not uncommon to hear bar patrons discuss the makeup of the beer the beer they were drinking. This boom period always seemed destined for failure, or at least a retraction as many markets seemed to have more craft breweries than they could support.

Related: Fast-food chain closes more stores after Chapter 11 bankruptcy

The pandemic, however, hastened that downfall. Many of these local and regional craft breweries counted on in-person sales to drive their business. 

And while many had local and regional distribution, selling through a third party comes with much lower margins. Direct sales drove their business and the pandemic forced many breweries to shut down their taprooms during the period where social distancing rules were in effect.

During those months the breweries still had rent and employees to pay while little money was coming in. That led to a number of popular beermakers including San Francisco's nationally-known Anchor Brewing as well as many regional favorites including Chicago’s Metropolitan Brewing, New Jersey’s Flying Fish, Denver’s Joyride Brewing, Tampa’s Zydeco Brew Werks, and Cleveland’s Terrestrial Brewing filing bankruptcy.

Some of these brands hope to survive, but others, including Anchor Brewing, fell into Chapter 7 liquidation. Now, another domino has fallen as a popular regional brewery has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Overall beer sales have fallen.

Image source: Shutterstock

Covid is not the only reason for brewery bankruptcies

While covid deserves some of the blame for brewery failures, it's not the only reason why so many have filed for bankruptcy protection. Overall beer sales have fallen driven by younger people embracing non-alcoholic cocktails, and the rise in popularity of non-beer alcoholic offerings,

Beer sales have fallen to their lowest levels since 1999 and some industry analysts

"Sales declined by more than 5% in the first nine months of the year, dragged down not only by the backlash and boycotts against Anheuser-Busch-owned Bud Light but the changing habits of younger drinkers," according to data from Beer Marketer’s Insights published by the New York Post.

Bud Light parent Anheuser Busch InBev (BUD) faced massive boycotts after it partnered with transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney. It was a very small partnership but it led to a right-wing backlash spurred on by Kid Rock, who posted a video on social media where he chastised the company before shooting up cases of Bud Light with an automatic weapon.

Another brewery files Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Gizmo Brew Works, which does business under the name Roth Brewing Company LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on March 8. In its filing, the company checked the box that indicates that its debts are less than $7.5 million and it chooses to proceed under Subchapter V of Chapter 11. 

"Both small business and subchapter V cases are treated differently than a traditional chapter 11 case primarily due to accelerated deadlines and the speed with which the plan is confirmed," USCourts.gov explained. 

Roth Brewing/Gizmo Brew Works shared that it has 50-99 creditors and assets $100,000 and $500,000. The filing noted that the company does expect to have funds available for unsecured creditors. 

The popular brewery operates three taprooms and sells its beer to go at those locations.

"Join us at Gizmo Brew Works Craft Brewery and Taprooms located in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Find us for entertainment, live music, food trucks, beer specials, and most importantly, great-tasting craft beer by Gizmo Brew Works," the company shared on its website.

The company estimates that it has between $1 and $10 million in liabilities (a broad range as the bankruptcy form does not provide a space to be more specific).

Gizmo Brew Works/Roth Brewing did not share a reorganization or funding plan in its bankruptcy filing. An email request for comment sent through the company's contact page was not immediately returned.

 

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Students lose out as cities and states give billions in property tax breaks to businesses − draining school budgets and especially hurting the poorest students

An estimated 95% of US cities provide economic development tax incentives to woo corporate investors, taking billions away from schools.

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Exxon Mobil Corp.'s campus in East Baton Rouge Parish, left, received millions in tax abatements to the detriment of local schools, right. Barry Lewis/Getty Images, Tjean314/Wikimedia

Built in 1910, James Elementary is a three-story brick school in Kansas City, Missouri’s historic Northeast neighborhood, with a bright blue front door framed by a sand-colored stone arch adorned with a gargoyle. As bustling students and teachers negotiate a maze of gray stairs with worn wooden handrails, Marjorie Mayes, the school’s principal, escorts a visitor across uneven blue tile floors on the ground floor to a classroom with exposed brick walls and pipes. Bubbling paint mars some walls, evidence of the water leaks spreading inside the aging building.

“It’s living history,” said Mayes during a mid-September tour of the building. “Not the kind of living history we want.”

The district would like to tackle the US$400 million in deferred maintenance needed to create a 21st century learning environment at its 35 schools – including James Elementary – but it can’t. It doesn’t have the money.

Property tax redirect

The lack of funds is a direct result of the property tax breaks that Kansas City lavishes on companies and developers that do business there. The program is supposed to bring in new jobs and business but instead has ended up draining civic coffers and starving schools. Between 2017 and 2023, the Kansas City school district lost $237.3 million through tax abatements.

Kansas City is hardly an anomaly. An estimated 95% of U.S. cities provide economic development tax incentives to woo corporate investors. The upshot is that billions have been diverted from large urban school districts and from a growing number of small suburban and rural districts. The impact is seen in districts as diverse as Chicago and Cleveland, Hillsboro, Oregon, and Storey County, Nevada.

The result? A 2021 review of 2,498 financial statements from school districts across 27 states revealed that, in 2019 alone, at least $2.4 billion was diverted to fund tax incentives. Yet that substantial figure still downplays the magnitude of the problem, because three-quarters of the 10,370 districts analyzed did not provide any information on tax abatement agreements.

Tax abatement programs have long been controversial, pitting states and communities against one another in beggar-thy-neighbor contests. Their economic value is also, at best, unclear: Studies show most companies would have made the same location decision without taxpayer subsidies. Meanwhile, schools make up the largest cost item in these communities, meaning they suffer most when companies are granted breaks in property taxes.

A three-month investigation by The Conversation and three scholars with expertise in economic development, tax laws and education policy shows that the cash drain from these programs is not equally shared by schools in the same communities. At the local level, tax abatements and exemptions often come at the cost of critical funding for school districts that disproportionately serve students from low-income households and who are racial minorities.

In Missouri, for example, in 2022 nearly $1,700 per student was redirected from Kansas City public and charter schools, while between $500 and $900 was redirected from wealthier, whiter Northland schools on the north side of the river in Kansas City and in the suburbs beyond. Other studies have found similar demographic trends elsewhere, including New York state, South Carolina and Columbus, Ohio.

The funding gaps produced by abated money often force schools to delay needed maintenance, increase class sizes, lay off teachers and support staff and even close outright. Schools also struggle to update or replace outdated technology, books and other educational resources. And, amid a nationwide teacher shortage, schools under financial pressures sometimes turn to inexperienced teachers who are not fully certified or rely too heavily on recruits from overseas who have been given special visa status.

Lost funding also prevents teachers and staff, who often feed, clothe and otherwise go above and beyond to help students in need, from earning a living wage. All told, tax abatements can end up harming a community’s value, with constant funding shortfalls creating a cycle of decline.

Incentives, payoffs and guarantees

Perversely, some of the largest beneficiaries of tax abatements are the politicians who publicly boast of handing out the breaks despite the harm to poorer communities. Incumbent governors have used the incentives as a means of taking credit for job creation, even when the jobs were coming anyway.

“We know that subsidies don’t work,” said Elizabeth Marcello, a doctoral lecturer at Hunter College who studies governmental planning and policy and the interactions between state and local governments. “But they are good political stories, and I think that’s why politicians love them so much.”

Academic research shows that economic development incentives are ineffective most of the time – and harm school systems.

While some voters may celebrate abatements, parents can recognize the disparities between school districts that are created by the tax breaks. Fairleigh Jackson pointed out that her daughter’s East Baton Rouge third grade class lacks access to playground equipment.

The class is attending school in a temporary building while their elementary school undergoes a two-year renovation.

The temporary site has some grass and a cement slab where kids can play, but no playground equipment, Jackson said. And parents needed to set up an Amazon wish list to purchase basic equipment such as balls, jump ropes and chalk for students to use. The district told parents there would be no playground equipment due to a lack of funds, then promised to install equipment, Jackson said, but months later, there is none.

Cement surface surrounded by a fence with grass beyond. There's no playground equipment..
The temporary site where Fairleigh Jackson’s daughter goes to school in East Baton Rouge Parish lacks playground equipment. Fairleigh Jackson, CC BY-ND

Jackson said it’s hard to complain when other schools in the district don’t even have needed security measures in place. “When I think about playground equipment, I think that’s a necessary piece of child development,” Jackson said. “Do we even advocate for something that should be a daily part of our kids’ experience when kids’ safety isn’t being funded?”

Meanwhile, the challenges facing administrators 500-odd miles away at Atlanta Public Schools are nothing if not formidable: The district is dealing with chronic absenteeism among half of its Black students, many students are experiencing homelessness, and it’s facing a teacher shortage.

At the same time, Atlanta is showering corporations with tax breaks. The city has two bodies that dole them out: the Development Authority of Fulton County, or DAFC, and Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency. The deals handed out by the two agencies have drained $103.8 million from schools from fiscal 2017 to 2022, according to Atlanta school system financial statements.

What exactly Atlanta and other cities and states are accomplishing with tax abatement programs is hard to discern. Fewer than a quarter of companies that receive breaks in the U.S. needed an incentive to invest, according to a 2018 study by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a nonprofit research organization.

This means that at least 75% of companies received tax abatements when they’re not needed – with communities paying a heavy price for economic development that sometimes provides little benefit.

In Kansas City, for example, there’s no guarantee that the businesses that do set up shop after receiving a tax abatement will remain there long term. That’s significant considering the historic border war between the Missouri and Kansas sides of Kansas City – a competition to be the most generous to the businesses, said Jason Roberts, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel. Kansas City, Missouri, has a 1% income tax on people who work in the city, so it competes for as many workers as possible to secure that earnings tax, Roberts said.

Under city and state tax abatement programs, companies that used to be in Kansas City have since relocated. The AMC Theaters headquarters, for example, moved from the city’s downtown to Leawood, Kansas, about a decade ago, garnering some $40 million in Promoting Employment Across Kansas tax incentives.

Roberts said that when one side’s financial largesse runs out, companies often move across the state line – until both states decided in 2019 that enough was enough and declared a cease-fire.

But tax breaks for other businesses continue. “Our mission is to grow the economy of Kansas City, and application of tools such as tax exemptions are vital to achieving that mission, said Jon Stephens, president and CEO of Port KC, the Kansas City Port Authority. The incentives speed development, and providing them "has resulted in growth choosing KC versus other markets,” he added.

In Atlanta, those tax breaks are not going to projects in neighborhoods that need help attracting development. They have largely been handed out to projects that are in high demand areas of the city, said Julian Bene, who served on Invest Atlanta’s board from 2010 to 2018. In 2019, for instance, the Fulton County development authority approved a 10-year, $16 million tax abatement for a 410-foot-tall, 27,000-square-foot tower in Atlanta’s vibrant Midtown business district. The project included hotel space, retail space and office space that is now occupied by Google and Invesco.

In 2021, a developer in Atlanta pulled its request for an $8 million tax break to expand its new massive, mixed-use Ponce City Market development in the trendy Beltline neighborhood with an office tower and apartment building. Because of community pushback, the developer knew it likely did not have enough votes from the commission for approval, Bene said. After a second try for $5 million in lower taxes was also rejected, the developer went ahead and built the project anyway.

Invest Atlanta has also turned down projects in the past, Bene said. Oftentimes, after getting rejected, the developer goes back to the landowner and asks for a better price to buy the property to make their numbers work, because it was overvalued at the start.

Trouble in Philadelphia

On Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, an environmental team was preparing Southwark School in Philadelphia for the winter cold. While checking an attic fan, members of the team saw loose dust on top of flooring that contained asbestos. The dust that certainly was blowing into the floors below could contain the cancer-causing agent. Within a day, Southwark was closed – the seventh Philadelphia school temporarily shuttered since the previous academic year because of possible asbestos contamination.

A 2019 inspection of the John L Kinsey school in Philadelphia found asbestos in plaster walls, floor tiles, radiator insulation and electrical panels. Asbestos is a major problem for Philadelphia’s public schools. The district needs $430 million to clean up the asbestos, lead, and other environmental hazards that place the health of students, teachers and staff at risk. And that is on top of an additional $2.4 billion to fix failing and damaged buildings.

Yet the money is not available. Matthew Stem, a former district official, testified in a 2023 lawsuit about financing of Pennsylvania schools that the environmental health risks cannot be addressed until an emergency like at Southwark because “existing funding sources are not sufficient to remediate those types of issues.”

Meanwhile, the city keeps doling out abatements, draining money that could have gone toward making Philadelphia schools safer. In the fiscal year ending June 2022, such tax breaks cost the school district $118 million – more than 25% of the total amount needed to remove the asbestos and other health dangers. These abatements take 31 years to break even, according to the city’s own scenario impact analyses.

Huge subsets of the community – primarily Black, Brown, poor or a combination – are being “drastically impacted” by the exemptions and funding shortfalls for the school district, said Kendra Brooks, a Philadelphia City Council member. Schools and students are affected by mold, asbestos and lead, and crumbling infrastructure, as well as teacher and staffing shortages – including support staff, social workers and psychologists.

More than half the district’s schools that lacked adequate air conditioning – 87 schools – had to go to half days during the first week of the 2023 school year because of extreme heat. Poor heating systems also leave the schools cold in the winter. And some schools are overcrowded, resulting in large class sizes, she said.

Front of a four-story brick school building with tall windows, some with air-conditioners
Horace Furness High School in Philadelphia, where hot summers have temporarily closed schools that lack air conditioning. Nick-philly/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Teachers and researchers agree that a lack of adequate funding undermines educational opportunities and outcomes. That’s especially true for children living in poverty. A 2016 study found that a 10% increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public schooling results in nearly one-third of a year of more education, 7.7% higher wages and a 3.2% reduction in annual incidence of adult poverty. The study estimated that a 21.7% increase could eliminate the high school graduation gap faced by children from low-income families.

More money for schools leads to more education resources for students and their teachers. The same researchers found that spending increases were associated with reductions in student-to-teacher ratios, increases in teacher salaries and longer school years. Other studies yielded similar results: School funding matters, especially for children already suffering the harms of poverty.

While tax abatements themselves are generally linked to rising property values, the benefits are not evenly distributed. In fact, any expansion of the tax base due to new property construction tends to be outside of the county granting the tax abatement. For families in school districts with the lost tax revenues, their neighbors’ good fortune likely comes as little solace. Meanwhile, a poorly funded education system is less likely to yield a skilled and competitive workforce, creating longer-term economic costs that make the region less attractive for businesses and residents.

“There’s a head-on collision here between private gain and the future quality of America’s workforce,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director at Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that’s critical of tax abatement and tracks the use of economic development subsidies.

Three-story school building with police officers out front and traffic lights in the foreground
Roxborough High School in Philadelphia. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

As funding dwindles and educational quality declines, additional families with means often opt for alternative educational avenues such as private schooling, home-schooling or moving to a different school district, further weakening the public school system.

Throughout the U.S., parents with the power to do so demand special arrangements, such as selective schools or high-track enclaves that hire experienced, fully prepared teachers. If demands aren’t met, they leave the district’s public schools for private schools or for the suburbs. Some parents even organize to splinter their more advantaged, and generally whiter, neighborhoods away from the larger urban school districts.

Those parental demands – known among scholars as “opportunity hoarding” – may seem unreasonable from the outside, but scarcity breeds very real fears about educational harms inflicted on one’s own children. Regardless of who’s to blame, the children who bear the heaviest burden of the nation’s concentrated poverty and racialized poverty again lose out.

Rethinking in Philadelphia and Riverhead

Americans also ask public schools to accomplish Herculean tasks that go far beyond the education basics, as many parents discovered at the onset of the pandemic when schools closed and their support for families largely disappeared.

A school serving students who endure housing and food insecurity must dedicate resources toward children’s basic needs and trauma. But districts serving more low-income students spend less per student on average, and almost half the states have regressive funding structures.

Facing dwindling resources for schools, several cities have begun to rethink their tax exemption programs.

The Philadelphia City Council recently passed a scale-back on a 10-year property tax abatement by decreasing the percentage of the subsidy over that time. But even with that change, millions will be lost to tax exemptions that could instead be invested in cash-depleted schools. “We could make major changes in our schools’ infrastructure, curriculum, staffing, staffing ratios, support staff, social workers, school psychologists – take your pick,” Brooks said.

Other cities looking to reform tax abatement programs are taking a different approach. In Riverhead, New York, on Long Island, developers or project owners can be granted exemptions on their property tax and allowed instead to shell out a far smaller “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT. When the abatement ends, most commonly after 10 years, the businesses then will pay full property taxes.

At least, that’s the idea, but the system is far from perfect. Beneficiaries of the PILOT program have failed to pay on time, leaving the school board struggling to fill a budget hole. Also, the payments are not equal to the amount they would receive for property taxes, with millions of dollars in potential revenue over a decade being cut to as little as a few hundred thousand. On the back end, if a business that’s subsidized with tax breaks fails after 10 years, the projected benefits never emerge.

And when the time came to start paying taxes, developers have returned to the city’s Industrial Development Agency with hat in hand, asking for more tax breaks. A local for-profit aquarium, for example, was granted a 10-year PILOT program break by Riverhead in 1999; it has received so many extensions that it is not scheduled to start paying full taxes until 2031 – 22 years after originally planned.

Kansas City border politics

Like many cities, Kansas City has a long history of segregation, white flight and racial redlining, said Kathleen Pointer, senior policy strategist for Kansas City Public Schools.

James Elementary in Kansas City, Mo. Danielle McLean, CC BY-ND

Troost Avenue, where the Kansas City Public Schools administrative office is located, serves as the city’s historic racial dividing line, with wealthier white families living in the west and more economically disadvantaged people of color in the east. Most of the district’s schools are located east of Troost, not west.

Students on the west side “pretty much automatically funnel into the college preparatory middle school and high schools,” said The Federation of Teachers’ Roberts. Those schools are considered signature schools that are selective and are better taken care of than the typical neighborhood schools, he added.

The school district’s tax levy was set by voters in 1969 at 3.75%. But successive attempts over the next few decades to increase the levy at the ballot box failed. During a decadeslong desegregation lawsuit that was eventually resolved through a settlement agreement in the 1990s, a court raised the district’s levy rate to 4.96% without voter approval. The levy has remained at the same 4.96% rate since.

Meanwhile, Kansas City is still distributing 20-year tax abatements to companies and developers for projects. The district calculated that about 92% of the money that was abated within the school district’s boundaries was for projects within the whiter west side of the city, Pointer said.

“Unfortunately, we can’t pick or choose where developers build,” said Meredith Hoenes, director of communications for Port KC. “We aren’t planning and zoning. Developers typically have plans in place when they knock on our door.”

In Kansas City, several agencies administer tax incentives, allowing developers to shop around to different bodies to receive one. Pointer said he believes the Port Authority is popular because they don’t do a third-party financial analysis to prove that the developers need the amount that they say they do.

With 20-year abatements, a child will start pre-K and graduate high school before seeing the benefits of a property being fully on the tax rolls, Pointer said. Developers, meanwhile, routinely threaten to build somewhere else if they don’t get the incentive, she said.

In 2020, BlueScope Construction, a company that had received tax incentives for nearly 20 years and was about to roll off its abatement, asked for another 13 years and threatened to move to another state if it didn’t get it. At the time, the U.S. was grappling with a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

“That was a moment for Kansas City Public Schools where we really drew a line in the sand and talked about incentives as an equity issue,” Pointer said.

After the district raised the issue – tying the incentives to systemic racism – the City Council rejected BlueScope’s bid and, three years later, it’s still in Kansas City, fully on the tax rolls, she said. BlueScope did not return multiple requests for comment.

Recently, a multifamily housing project was approved for a 20-year tax abatement by the Port Authority of Kansas City at Country Club Plaza, an outdoor shopping center in an affluent part of the city. The housing project included no affordable units. “This project was approved without any independent financial analysis proving that it needed that subsidy,” Pointer said.

All told, the Kansas City Public Schools district faces several shortfalls beyond the $400 million in deferred maintenance, Superintendent Jennifer Collier said. There are staffing shortages at all positions: teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff. As in much of the U.S., the cost of housing is surging. New developments that are being built do not include affordable housing, or when they do, the units are still out of reach for teachers.

That’s making it harder for a district that already loses about 1 in 5 of its teachers each year to keep or recruit new ones, who earn an average of only $46,150 their first year on the job, Collier said.

East Baton Rouge and the industrial corridor

It’s impossible to miss the tanks, towers, pipes and industrial structures that incongruously line Baton Rouge’s Scenic Highway landscape. They’re part of Exxon Mobil Corp.’s campus, home of the oil giant’s refinery in addition to chemical and plastics plants.

Aerial view of industrial buildings along a river
Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Baton Rouge campus occupies 3.28 square miles. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Sitting along the Mississippi River, the campus has been a staple of Louisiana’s capital for over 100 years. It’s where 6,000 employees and contractors who collectively earn over $400 million annually produce 522,000 barrels of crude oil per day when at full capacity, as well as the annual production and manufacture of 3 billion pounds of high-density polyethylene and polypropylene and 6.6 billion pounds of petrochemical products. The company posted a record-breaking $55.7 billion in profits in 2022 and $36 billion in 2023.

Across the street are empty fields and roads leading into neighborhoods that have been designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a low-income food desert. A mile drive down the street to Route 67 is a Dollar General, fast-food restaurants, and tiny, rundown food stores. A Hi Nabor Supermarket is 4 miles away.

East Baton Rouge Parish’s McKinley High School, a 12-minute drive from the refinery, serves a student body that is about 80% Black and 85% poor. The school, which boasts famous alums such as rapper Kevin Gates, former NBA player Tyrus Thomas and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Gardner C. Taylor, holds a special place in the community, but it has been beset by violence and tragedy lately. Its football team quarterback, who was killed days before graduation in 2017, was among at least four of McKinley’s students who have been shot or murdered over the past six years.

The experience is starkly different at some of the district’s more advantaged schools, including its magnet programs open to high-performing students.

Black-and-white outline of Louisiana showing the parishes, with one, near the bottom right, filled in red
East Baton Rouge Parish, marked in red, includes an Exxon Mobil Corp. campus and the city of Baton Rouge. David Benbennick/Wikimedia

Baton Rouge is a tale of two cities, with some of the worst outcomes in the state for education, income and mortality, and some of the best outcomes. “It was only separated by sometimes a few blocks,” said Edgar Cage, the lead organizer for the advocacy group Together Baton Rouge. Cage, who grew up in the city when it was segregated by Jim Crow laws, said the root cause of that disparity was racism.

“Underserved kids don’t have a path forward” in East Baton Rouge public schools, Cage said.

A 2019 report from the Urban League of Louisiana found that economically disadvantaged African American and Hispanic students are not provided equitable access to high-quality education opportunities. That has contributed to those students underperforming on standardized state assessments, such as the LEAP exam, being unprepared to advance to higher grades and being excluded from high-quality curricula and instruction, as well as the highest-performing schools and magnet schools.

“Baton Rouge is home to some of the highest performing schools in the state,” according to the report. “Yet the highest performing schools and schools that have selective admissions policies often exclude disadvantaged students and African American and Hispanic students.”

Dawn Collins, who served on the district’s school board from 2016 to 2022, said that with more funding, the district could provide more targeted interventions for students who were struggling academically or additional support to staff so they can better assist students with greater needs.

But for decades, Louisiana’s Industrial Ad Valorem Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, allowed for 100% property tax exemptions for industrial manufacturing facilities, said Erin Hansen, the statewide policy analyst at Together Louisiana, a network of 250 religious and civic organizations across the state that advocates for grassroots issues, including tax fairness.

The ITEP program was created in the 1930s through a state constitutional amendment, allowing companies to bypass a public vote and get approval for the exemption through the governor-appointed Board of Commerce and Industry, Hansen said. For over 80 years, that board approved nearly all applications that it received, she said.

Since 2000, Louisiana has granted a total of $35 billion in corporate property tax breaks for 12,590 projects.

Louisiana’s executive order

A few efforts to reform the program over the years have largely failed. But in 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an executive order that slightly but importantly tweaked the system. On top of the state board vote, the order gave local taxing bodies – such as school boards, sheriffs and parish or city councils – the ability to vote on their own individual portions of the tax exemptions. And in 2019 the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board exercised its power to vote down an abatement.

Throughout the U.S., school boards’ power over the tax abatements that affect their budgets vary, and in some states, including Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, New Jersey and South Carolina, school boards lack any formal ability to vote or comment on tax abatement deals that affect them.

Edwards’ executive order also capped the maximum exemption at 80% and tightened the rules so routine capital investments and maintenance were no longer eligible, Hansen said. A requirement concerning job creation was also put in place.

Concerned residents and activists, led by Together Louisiana and sister group Together Baton Rouge, rallied around the new rules and pushed back against the billion-dollar corporation taking more tax money from the schools. In 2019, the campaign worked: the school board rejected a $2.9 million property tax break bid by Exxon Mobil.

After the decision, Exxon Mobil reportedly described the city as “unpredictable.”

However, members of the business community have continued to lobby for the tax breaks, and they have pushed back against further rejections. In fact, according to Hansen, loopholes were created during the rulemaking process around the governor’s executive order that allowed companies to weaken its effectiveness.

In total, 223 Exxon Mobil projects worth nearly $580 million in tax abatements have been granted in the state of Louisiana under the ITEP program since 2000.

“ITEP is needed to compete with other states – and, in ExxonMobil’s case, other countries,” according to Exxon Mobil spokesperson Lauren Kight.

She pointed out that Exxon Mobil is the largest property taxpayer for the EBR school system, paying more than $46 million in property taxes in EBR parish in 2022 and another $34 million in sales taxes.

A new ITEP contract won’t decrease this existing tax revenue, Kight added. “Losing out on future projects absolutely will.”

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has continued to approve Exxon Mobil abatements, passing $46.9 million between 2020 and 2022. Between 2017 and 2023, the school district has lost $96.3 million.

Taxes are highest when industrial buildings are first built. Industrial property comes onto the tax rolls at 40% to 50% of its original value in Louisiana after the initial 10-year exemption, according to the Ascension Economic Development Corp.

Exxon Mobil received its latest tax exemption, $8.6 million over 10 years – an 80% break – in October 2023 for $250 million to install facilities at the Baton Rouge complex that purify isopropyl alcohol for microchip production and that create a new advanced recycling facility, allowing the company to address plastic waste. The project created zero new jobs.

The school board approved it by a 7-2 vote after a long and occasionally contentious board meeting.

“Does it make sense for Louisiana and other economically disadvantaged states to kind of compete with each other by providing tax incentives to mega corporations like Exxon Mobil?” said EBR School Board Vice President Patrick Martin, who voted for the abatement. “Probably, in a macro sense, it does not make a lot of sense. But it is the program that we have.”

Obviously, Exxon Mobil benefits, he said. “The company gets a benefit in reducing the property taxes that they would otherwise pay on their industrial activity that adds value to that property.” But the community benefits from the 20% of the property taxes that are not exempted, he said.

“I believe if we don’t pass it, over time the investments will not come and our district as a whole will have less money,” he added.

In 2022, a year when Exxon Mobil made a record $55.7 billion, the company asked for a 10-year, 80% property tax break from the cash-starved East Baton Rouge Parish school district. A lively debate ensued.

Meanwhile, the district’s budgetary woes are coming to a head. Bus drivers staged a sickout at the start of the school year, refusing to pick up students – in protest of low pay and not having buses equipped with air conditioning amid a heat wave. The district was forced to release students early, leaving kids stranded without a ride to school, before it acquiesced and provided the drivers and other staff one-time stipends and purchased new buses with air conditioning.

The district also agreed to reestablish transfer points as a temporary response to the shortages. But that transfer-point plan has historically resulted in students riding on the bus for hours and occasionally missing breakfast when the bus arrives late, according to Angela Reams-Brown, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers. The district plans to purchase or lease over 160 buses and solve its bus driver shortage next year, but the plan could lead to a budget crisis.

A teacher shortage looms as well, because the district is paying teachers below the regional average. At the school board meeting, Laverne Simoneaux, an ELL specialist at East Baton Rouge’s Woodlawn Elementary, said she was informed that her job was not guaranteed next year since she’s being paid through federal COVID-19 relief funds. By receiving tax exemptions, Exxon Mobil was taking money from her salary to deepen their pockets, she said.

A young student in the district told the school board that the money could provide better internet access or be used to hire someone to pick up the glass and barbed wire in the playground. But at least they have a playground – Hayden Crockett, a seventh grader at Sherwood Middle Academic Magnet School, noted that his sister’s elementary school lacked one.

“If it wasn’t in the budget to fund playground equipment, how can it also be in the budget to give one of the most powerful corporations in the world a tax break?” Crockett said. “The math just ain’t mathing.”

Christine Wen worked for the nonprofit organization Good Jobs First from June 2019 to May 2022 where she helped collect tax abatement data.

Nathan Jensen has received funding from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. He is a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center.

Danielle McLean and Kevin Welner do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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