Why we Americans will NEVER recover from this ‘recession’

I recently blogged about how Michael Burry profited enormously by seeing how real estate was over priced and being sold to people who  could not afford to own it.

This is what I am writing about today. How real estate drives the economy.  You  hear the politicians harping about how labor is what causes inflation—-but labor has to pay for housing and energy—and those costs —costs we can not control—are what drive inflation.

Let me address energy briefly. We have known since the 1950s that we Americans were using energy to ‘fuel’ our economy, and that it was prudent to invest in alternative and renewable energy resources, but there was no  constituency organized enough to lobby for it.  I thought for sure, when OPEC came into being,  and during the Jimmy Carter administration, that  the environmental non-profits would surely be  able to  organize us (Americans) around this vital topic, But, alas, no, the  oil companies, and the automobile manufacturers were able to continue to flim-flam our politicians, There was plenty of oil left, and it was worth sending our soldiers  to the Middle East to die for it and to prevent the ‘rest of the world’ (who would have every thought China back then) from getting it.  & sending soldiers to die for it solved another problem:  they were not  here in the U.S. siring children that there would be no jobs for.  That was much better than educating child-bearing  people that zero population growth would be better for  the  economy and all our futures than bearing kids there would be no jobs for.

That’s a related issue:  how people decide to have—bear—so many kids.  People  are incredibly optimistic when they are ….clueless…

When I was  a kid, in the 1960s, and wondering how to determine  what it would cost me to live, my mother told me to budget 25% of my net income for rent and utilities. That would leave me plenty for other expenses….but  so many peoples’ parents didn’t tell them anything—and it got to be that the  conventional wisdom was 33% of net, and, until very recently—at least in Chicago,  40% for housing. What?  You read right.  Those people are living beyond their means.

Who is profiting in this economy now?  Those who provide credit.  I had a very senior friend tell me in the early 1970s that interest rates would never rise over 10% because  you’d never get into the principle.  He didn’t count on people being innumerate—and not understanding that—but the banks and the credit services did.  They have a vested interest in kids not learning  math  skills.  I think I was of the last generation to learn about compound interest in 8th grade.

Real Estate in the U.S. is based on marketing. You would think it would be  based on the cost of land, the infrastructure you have into your home, the  public services  available to you, and the amenities in your home. That’s not even half of it.  The real estate industry  did a fantastic job of marketing, especially since the ‘recovery’ from what happened in the 1970s, and  Carter, and Reagan….but what  ‘they’ did was  just  get us into the mindset that borrowing against the future was the way to go.

It plays out differently in  much of the  rest of the world.  I learned this from studying urban planning, land tenure, and being in  British Commonwealth countries.  You do not own your land in most urban areas.  You get a 99 year lease.  This has prevented inflation based on real estate in most countries. Instead, their inflation is based in their  soft currencies being pegged to hard (European mostly) currencies, and global energy costs.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi when their 99 year leases for  land in Lilongwe and Blantyre were coming up for renewal.  Unfortunately, we had other pressing issues to deal with, so  many of the land owners got a free ride for a good long time.

We do have 99 year leases in the U.S.  If you live  in  housing built on Native American Tribal Land, chances are you may own your structure, but you don’t own the land it sits on.

So,  at the end of 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, and we  all learned that  many of our neighbors had taken on too much debt, and the  credit providers had carved up that  debt  (oh yes—the mortgage brokers and the  debt buyers  owned  pieces—payment streams —in case of a default, they wouldn’t lose their entire investment—-too bad everything they invested in was structured the same way and all of it was  bad), and the  whole market  collapsed.  Our community of middle class people never really had enough  savings to ride through the storm.  The other thing my mother told me  was it was important to have  at least a year’s worth of living expenses in savings.  But that was my mother.  Other peoples mothers  apparently told them to have faith in God,  or buy toys like the latest electronic gadgets….I don’t know. All I know is that there  is a lot of housing available now that  not only  is built poorly (but damn, it sure looks good with  cherry wood floors and granite in the kitchens and baths—never mind the heating systems don’t heat, and the pipes leak), but NOBODY CAN AFFORD IT.  At least not in major markets like Chicago.  It’s sort of shocking to me how many students are over $50,000 in debt for student loans. These are not  engineering or science students. They have majored in the arts.  They are gambling that they will either be more creative than their peers, will find rich benefactors, or find employers who  like their looks and personalities & figure they will ultimately get up to speed on  performance (which is, again, why we are in the economic mess we are  in).

As housing is over built and of poor quality, and few people are secure enough in their jobs to qualify for loans,  the housing glut will  remain  with us for —I’ll go out on a limb and say  at least five years.  This will be good for  the  new, up-and-coming  engineers and health care professionals, maybe even for people working in the  building trades.  The problem  is,  more people have majored in the arts or marketing or social sciences, not qualified to do anything…and here we are.  Couple that with having our transportation infrastructure based on imported fossil fuels—the price of which we can not control.  Do the math.

Solution?  It will never happen.  The government must own the land that housing sits on (it does, with the right of eminent domain, but the lawyers  get a piece trying to defend you from their taking it).  The irony is, most of the people who have lost their homes would qualify for public housing, if it existed and they knew how to  game the system the way the public housing residents do.

Because the public housing that was built in Chicago was of such poor quality & so poorly maintained (I blame the renters & the management companies), a lot of public housing residents  were moved out of public housing—but they have the right of first refusal for new units built. Did you know that?  It’s true.  There are people employed by the public housing agencies actually seeking those old residents–who are now presumably living in market rate housing—and paying for it…and the  employees of public housing are offering them a deal.   Seems that once you qualify for public housing,  you do not have to requalify every year.   You are qualified for life.  The public housing agencies do not ask to see your tax returns.  What goes along with that is that as a public housing resident, or someone receiving public aid, you are not allowed to accumulate assets.  I believe the limit may now be $10,000 & then you may be kicked off of public aid or out of public housing.   While $10,000 seems like a lot, it may not be enough for a good car, or to pay a repair man, or your co-pay if you  have health insurance. There is no incentive to get your act together and try to live in a capitalist society.  Are YOU part of the constituency to change that?  Don’t bother even trying.  Legal immigrants know how to game that system, too, and hide money.

Is this a great country, or what?  I wish I could ask every  person enlisted in the military  if they are sure they know what they are fighting for.

I am lucky to have traveled and lived off-shore.  I am conmfortable with the idea of retiring  elsewhere.


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