by Jim Quinn The Burning Platform
Is it just me, or are the signs of consumer collapse as clear as a Lowes parking lot on a Saturday afternoon? Sometimes I wonder if I’m just seeing the world through my pessimistic lens, skewing my point of view. My daily commute through West Philadelphia is not very enlightening, as the squalor, filth and lack of legal commerce remain consistent from year to year. This community is sustained by taxpayer subsidized low income housing, taxpayer subsidized food stamps, welfare payments, and illegal drug dealing. The dependency attitude, lifestyles of slothfulness and total lack of commerce has remained constant for decades in West Philly. It is on the weekends, cruising around a once thriving suburbia, where you perceive the persistent deterioration and decay of our debt fixated consumer spending based society.
The last two weekends I've needed to travel the highways of Montgomery County, PA going to a family party and purchasing a garbage disposal for my sink at my local Lowes store. Montgomery County is the typical white upper middle class suburb, with tracts of McMansions dotting the landscape. The population of 800,000 is spread over a 500 square mile area. Over 81% of the population is white, with the 9% black population confined to the urban enclaves of Norristown and Pottstown.
The median age is 38 and the median household income is $75,000, 50% above the national average. The employers are well diversified with an even distribution between education, health care, manufacturing, retail, professional services, finance and real estate. The median home price is $300,000, also 50% above the national average. The county leans Democrat, with Obama winning 60% of the vote in 2008. The 300,000 households were occupied by college educated white collar professionals. From a strictly demographic standpoint, Montgomery County appears to be a prosperous flourishing community where the residents are living lives of relative affluence. But, if you look closer and connect the dots, you see fissures in this faade of affluence that spread more expansively by the day. The cheap oil based, automobile dependent, mall centric, suburban sprawl, sanctuary of consumerism lifestyle is showing distinct signs of erosion. The clues are there for all to see and portend a bleak future for those mentally trapped in the delusions of a debt dependent suburban oasis of retail outlets, chain restaurants, office parks and enclaves of cookie cutter McMansions. An unsustainable paradigm can't be sustained.
The first weekend had me driving along Ridge Pike, from Collegeville to Pottstown. Ridge Pike is a meandering two lane road that extends from Philadelphia, winds through Conshohocken, Plymouth Meeting, Norristown, past Ursinus College in Collegeville, to the farthest reaches of Montgomery County, at least 50 miles in length. It served as a main artery prior to the introduction of the interstates and superhighways that now connect the larger cities in eastern PA. Except for morning and evening rush hours, this road is fairly sedate. Like many primary routes in suburbia, the landscape is engulfed by strip malls, gas stations, automobile dealerships, office buildings, fast food joints, once thriving manufacturing facilities sitting vacant and older homes that preceded the proliferation of cookie cutter communities that now dominate what was once farmland.
I should probably be keeping my eyes on the road, but I can't help but notice the telltale signs of an economic system gone haywire. As you drive along, the number of For Sale signs in front of homes stands out. When you consider how bad the housing market has been, the 40% decline in national home prices since 2007, the 30% of home dwellers underwater on their mortgage, and declining household income, you realize how desperate a home seller must be to try and unload a home in this market. The reality of the number of For Sale signs does not match the rhetoric coming from the NAR, government mouthpieces, CNBC pundits, and other housing recovery shills about record low inventory and home price increases.
The Federal Reserve/Wall Street/U.S. Treasury charade of foreclosure delaying tactics and selling thousands of properties in bulk to their crony capitalist buddies at a discount is designed to misinform the public. My local paper lists foreclosures in the community every Monday morning. In 2009 it would extend for four full pages. Today, it still extends four full pages. The fact that Wall Street bankers have criminally forged mortgage documents, people are living in houses for two years without making mortgage payments, and the Federal Government backing 97% of all mortgages while encouraging 3.5% down financing does not constitute a true housing recovery. Show me the housing recovery in these charts.
Existing home sales are at 1998 levels, with 45 million more people living in the country today.
New single family homes under construction are below levels in 1969, when there were 112 million less people in the country.
Another observation that can be made as you cruise through this suburban mecca of malaise is the overall decay of the infrastructure, appearances and disinterest or inability to maintain properties. The roadways are potholed with fading traffic lines, utility poles leaning and rotting, and signage corroding and antiquated. Houses are missing roof tiles, siding is cracked, gutters astray, porches sagging, windows cracked, a paint brush hasn't been utilized in decades, and yards are inundated with debris and weeds. Not every house looks this way, but far more than you would think when viewing the overall demographics for Montgomery County. You wonder how many number among the 10 million vacant houses in the country today. The number of dilapidated run down properties paints a picture of the silent, barely perceptible Depression that grips the country today. With such little sense of community in the suburbs, most people don't even know their neighbors. With the electronic transfer of food stamps, unemployment compensation, and other welfare benefits you would never know that your neighbor is unemployed and hasn't made the mortgage payment on his house in 30 months. The corporate fascist ruling plutocracy uses their propaganda mouthpieces in the mainstream corporate media and government agency drones to misinform and obscure the truth, but the data and anecdotal observational evidence reveal the true nature of our societal implosion.
A report by the Census Bureau this past week inadvertently reveals data that confirms my observations on the roadways of my suburban existence. Annual household income fell in 2011 for the fourth straight year, to an inflation-adjusted $50,054. The median income u2014 meaning half earned more, half less u2014 now stands 8.9% lower than the all-time peak of $54,932 in 1999. It is far worse than even that dreadful result. Real median household income is lower than it was in 1989. When you understand that real household income hasn't risen in 23 years, you can connect the dots with the decay and deterioration of properties in suburbia. A vast swath of Americans cannot afford to maintain their residences. If the choice is feeding your kids and keeping the heat on versus repairing the porch, replacing the windows or getting a new roof, the only option is survival.
All races have seen their income fall, with educational achievement reflected in the much higher incomes of Whites and Asians. It is interesting to note that after a 45 year War on Poverty the median household income for black families is only up 19% since 1968.
Now for the really bad news. Any critical thinking person should realize the Federal Government has been systematically under-reporting inflation since the early 1980's in an effort to obscure the fact they are debasing the currency and methodically destroying the lives of middle class Americans. If inflation was calculated exactly as it was in 1980, the GDP figures would be substantially lower and inflation would be reported 5% higher than it is today. Faking the numbers does not change reality, only the perception of reality. Calculating real median household income with the true level of inflation exposes the true picture for middle class America. Real median household income is lower than it was in 1970, just prior to Nixon closing the gold window and unleashing the full fury of a Federal Reserve able to print fiat currency and politicians to promise the earth, moon and the sun to voters. With incomes not rising over the last four decades is it any wonder many of our 115 million households slowly rot and decay from within like an old diseased oak tree. The slightest gust of wind can lead to disaster.
Eliminating the last remnants of fiscal discipline on bankers and politicians in 1971 accomplished the desired result of enriching the top 0.1% while leaving the bottom 90% in debt and desolation. The Wall Street debt peddlers, Military Industrial arms dealers, and job destroying corporate goliaths have reaped the benefits of financialization (money printing) while shoveling the costs, their gambling losses, trillions of consumer debt, and relentless inflation upon the working tax paying middle class. The creation of the Federal Reserve and implementation of the individual income tax in 1913, along with leaving the gold standard has rewarded the cabal of private banking interests who have captured our economic and political systems with obscene levels of wealth, while senior citizens are left with no interest earnings ($400 billion per year has been absconded from savers and doled out to bankers since 2008 by Ben Bernanke) and the middle class has gone decades seeing their earnings stagnate and their purchasing power fall precipitously.
The facts exposed in the chart above didn't happen by accident. The system has been rigged by those in power to enrich them, while impoverishing the masses. When you gain control over the issuance of currency, issuance of debt, tax system, political system and legal apparatus, you've essentially hijacked the country and can funnel all the benefits to yourself and costs to the math challenged, government educated, brainwashed dupes, known as the masses. But there is a problem for the .01%. Their sociopathic personalities never allow them to stop plundering and preying upon the sheep. They have left nothing but carcasses of the once proud hard working middle class across the country side. There are only so many Lear jets, estates in the Hamptons, Jaguars, and Rolexes the .01% can buy. There are only 152,000 of them. Their sociopathic looting and pillaging of the national wealth has destroyed the host. When 90% of the population can barely subsist, collapse and revolution beckon.
Extend, Pretend & Depend
As I drove further along Ridge Pike we passed the endless monuments to our spiral into the depths of materialism, consumerism, and the illusion that goods purchased on credit represented true wealth. Mile after mile of strip malls, restaurants, gas stations, and office buildings rolled by my window. Anyone who lives in the suburbs knows what I'm talking about. You can't travel three miles in any direction without passing a Dunkin Donuts, KFC, McDonalds, Subway, 7-11, Dairy Queen, Supercuts, Jiffy Lube or Exxon Station. The proliferation of office parks to accommodate the millions of paper pushers that make our service economy hum has been unprecedented in human history. Never have so many done so little in so many places. Everyone knows what a standard American strip mall consists of — a pizza place, a Chinese takeout, beer store, a tanning, salon, a weight loss center, a nail salon, a Curves, karate studio, Gamestop, Radioshack, Dollar Store, H&R Block, and a debt counseling service. They are a reflection of who we've become — an obese drunken species with excessive narcissistic tendencies that prefers to play video games while texting on our iGadgets as our debt financed lifestyles ultimately require professional financial assistance.
What you can't ignore today is the number of vacant storefronts in these strip malls and the overwhelming number of SPACE AVAILABLE, FOR LEASE, and FOR RENT signs that proliferate in front of these dying testaments to an unsustainable economic system based upon debt fueled consumer spending and infinite growth assumptions. The booming sign manufacturer is surely based in China. The officially reported national vacancy rates of 11% are already at record highs, but anyone with two eyes knows these self-reported numbers are a fraud. Vacancy rates based on my observations are closer to 30%. This is part of the extend and pretend strategy that has been implemented by Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, the FASB, and the Wall Street banking cabal. The fraud and false storyline of a commercial real estate recovery is evident to anyone willing to think critically. The incriminating data is provided by the Federal Reserve in their Quarterly Delinquency Report.